What is your name?
Hi, I'm Katharine Stephens.
Describe yourself in 3 to 5 words.
Smart, funny, athletic, determined, positive.
How did you discover your skin cancer/melanoma and how long ago?
This summer 2018, my mother, sister, and I went to our dermatologist for full body skin checks. It had been over a year since we had been and my mom thought it would be a good idea for all of us to get an exam. None of us had any particular spots we were concerned about or thought looked abnormal. The doctor, however, found a mole on my lower calf that she thought looked just a little different than the rest. She biopsied it and it came back as melanoma in situ — the earliest and most curable form of melanoma.
After this diagnosis, we scheduled another exam to do a followup skin check to make sure she had not missed anything. At this appointment, she decided to biopsy a mole that was near the original melanoma in situ lesion. She thought this one looked relatively normal but wanted to check it anyway. The biopsy results came back as stage 1 malignant melanoma! This news was very frightening for my family and me and my dermatologist was very concerned considering that I was only 18-years-old. I had both lesions on my calf surgically excised by a plastic surgeon with deep and wide margins which resulted in 2 significant scars on my leg that took over 3 months to heal.
The good news is that my surgeon got all of the cancer cells and those 2 sites are clear. With my dermatologist’s help, we found a melanoma specialist in Chicago who I see every 3 months for regular skin checks. Since this summer I have had 2 more lesions removed that came back showing moderate and severe atypia but at least not melanoma.
What is your attitude towards sun protection today?
My background is mostly Irish and I have classic Irish red hair and fair skin. I grew up using sunscreen pretty consistently and my parents always required it whenever I went swimming or if we were going to be outside for a long time like at soccer games or other outdoor events.
I never purposely got sunburned, lay out to get a tan or used a tanning bed like some of my friends but unfortunately, with my fair skin it doesn’t take much sun exposure to turn pink and I have been burned a few times. I always knew sunburns were harmful, but I never really understood the damage that even one sunburn can do to your skin, especially as a redhead. Since my skin cancer diagnosis, I have completely changed the way I view the sun and sun protection.
Now I always make sure I have sunscreen on if I’m going to be outside or I cover up with sun protective clothing. The biggest challenge I have had to face in this journey is figuring out how I can continue to play soccer. I have played soccer since I was little and I currently play NCAA Division 1 soccer for Loyola University Chicago. Soccer has always been one of my biggest passions and I was afraid my skin cancer diagnosis was going to prohibit me from playing the sport I love. Thankfully, I continue to play and enjoy the outdoors—I just make sure to wear UPF clothing and UPF base layers under my uniform and I use mineral-based sunscreens on the exposed areas of my skin.
I have also started wearing hats more often when I’m outside or on the sidelines and I look for shady spots to rest when we have practice breaks. I am much more aware of the damage the sun can cause and the importance of sun protection.
It’s a new lifestyle for me but one that I know will keep me safe and healthy for the rest of my life.
What would you tell your 16-year-old self about sun protection?
- Listen to your parents when they tell you to put sunscreen on!
- The sun is harmful to everyone, regardless of your skin color.
- There is no such thing as a healthy tan, embrace your paleness!
- It is not uncool to want to cover up and protect your skin.
Thanks Katharine, for sharing your story with us and our Solbari Community.