Vanessa’s personal story
I grew up in small-town Idaho where life revolves around the great outdoors. Any and all free time my family had was spent pursuing activities outside, and that passion for nature, fresh air, and sunshine will forever be ingrained in my being. I also naturally excelled at athletics. In my youth I bounced around from court to court trying out the newest sport that inspired me. But eventually I picked up a volleyball, and it stuck.
Volleyball has guided me through life. I played DI collegiate volleyball, I coached DII collegiate volleyball, and within the last few years, I learned to love a new format of the game—beach volleyball. To be competitive at beach volleyball, an athlete needs to be quick. They need to be well-rounded on the court. They need to be smart. And they need to spend an unprecedented number of hours training in the sand, and therefore, in the sun. I was hooked from day one and every free moment I had was spent training, or competing. My sun exposure multiplied by 10 from that day forward, but I thought I was taking care of myself and being safe. That is until the day I received a phone call from my sister that forever changed my outlook on skin protection.
Summer 2011, I was enjoying a day of water skiing with my family when my older sister (who is a doctor), noticed a mole on my stomach that she thought looked questionable. For precautionary purposes, she suggested that I have it removed. It was a mole I had seen every day of my life and I hadn’t ever thought twice about it, but trusting my sister’s advice, I agreed to do so. Within the next week we had removed the mole, sent it off to the labs, and returned to our normal lives. At the time, I was living across the nation from my family, so when the lab results came back, I received that life changing phone call from my sister with startling news—that small mole was in fact melanoma.
I didn’t have a doctor lined up in Washington D.C. where I was living when I received this news. It was a frightening moment, but I had comfort in talking with my sister. Together we researched reputable doctors in the area, and I was able to get an appointment not too long after.
The first day I visited Dr. Ali Hendi’s office was eye opening. I was alarmed to see the impact melanoma had on so many patients as they came and went from the office. Most of them were decades older than myself, and walked out of the operating room having lost parts of their face, their ears, their nose, and more. It was a huge reality check on how sun exposure adds up over time. Those minutes leading up to my appointment forced me to examine my life and consider whether I actually had been safe.
Being outside helps me find what matters inside. It is my sanity, my chi, my motivation, my inspiration, and more. Even before I started playing beach volleyball, I spent an extraordinary amount of time in the sun. However, I had never in my life gone in for a skin check. On top of that, I am the perfect candidate for skin cancer as I am a fair, freckled, redhead. Unlike most redheads though, I actually tan very well. Throughout my life, I’ve been told many times that I am lucky that I get color. But knowing what I know now, I would argue the opposite. Because I tanned more than your average redhead, I likely didn’t pay as much attention to sun exposure than most carrot tops that burn like crazy. But I am just as susceptible. In years past, I wore sunscreen if I was outside for long lengths at a time. But I also liked how I looked with a tan. I liked to get color. And like most young females, I went through a stage where I would visit tanning salons.
I was regretting all of those choices as I sat waiting for my appointment.
After being examined, I was informed that I had stage II melanoma that would require Mohs surgery. Mohs surgery involves cutting out layer upon layer of skin, and testing each layer, until the doctor determines that the melanoma is no longer present in that part of the body. Assuming the melanoma is caught early enough, Mohs is the final step in removing the skin cancer.
In my first Mohs appointment, I left with 21 stitches that went three layers deep into my stomach, and a precautionary removal of 2 other moles. But not too long after, I received another phone call with news that one of those moles came back positive with melanoma as well. So I scheduled to have my second round of Mohs surgery. I was lucky enough to have caught mine early and never had to undergo radiation or further treatments, but I witnessed hundreds of others that weren’t as fortunate as myself. Immediately, I made substantial life changes to ensure I would be a step ahead and combat my predisposition to skin cancer.
Since then my life and views on sun protection have taken a 180. Not long after my diagnosis, I moved to Southern California to compete on the professional beach volleyball circuit. Sun was, and is, an inevitable factor in my life. However, I knew that if I wanted to continue competing, I needed to ensure that my training routines and preparations were safe guarding me from the hours of sun exposure that would be a part of my life.
I travel extensively from March to September competing in beach volleyball tournaments. I spend entire days of entire weekends competing on the sunniest beaches in the United States. Sun is inevitable for me. But if I am not willing to compromise time spent outside, then I have to be, and I am more cognizant of how I prepare to do so. I am a freak about sunscreen, I always have protective layers with me, and I wear a hat nearly everywhere I go. Since my diagnoses, I have had regular skin checks in three-month increments, and I have had two other pre-cancerous spots removed. I don’t plan on having any more issues with melanoma and I will do everything I can to keep my skin cancer-free. I now have two substantial scars on my stomach that act as a reminder of what I went through, and what could easily happen again if I am not careful. Those scars not only act as a reminder for myself, but they act as a conversation starter for other beach volleyball players who spend far too much time in the sun. Hopefully my story inspires them to be more proactive as well.
Not only am I paying more attention to my own skin, and taking steps to stay protected, but I have also made skin care awareness my main mission for my beach volleyball competitions. I use exposure as an athlete to educate others on the risks and potential consequences as much as I am able. I am thankful to have incredible sponsors and doctors that believe in me as an athlete, as a person, and who also fuel my mission with their amazing sunscreen products, UPF clothing, and medical expertise. The dermatology team of Moy-Fincher-Chipps in the South Bay of California, also encourage me to be as proactive as possible with their medical support.
My advice for everyone is to get a skin check. Even if you are dark skinned, or barely spend any time in the sun, or think you are fine, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Know the characteristics of irregular moles, and pay attention to those that you have. It is too easy not to pay attention, and not all of us have doctor sisters looking out for us on the ski boat. If something looks funny, or starts to change, see a doctor immediately. Wear sunscreen, hats, UPF shirts, and be safe. It doesn’t matter what your skin tone, it isn’t worth the risk.