She calls it her shark bite, an indented surgery scar on her inner thigh with 47 stitches on the inside. It’s not pretty, but this scar tells a story and makes an instant impact when she shows students how melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, leaves its mark.
Michelle LeBlanc, an instructor at the Elizabeth Grady School of Esthetics and Massage Therapy, was diagnosed with early-stage melanoma in 2011. Years ago, as an avid sun bather and tanning bed owner, Michelle didn’t worry about the long-term affects of sun damage and unprotected exposure. “You don’t worry about it when you’re young. You’re invincible. If you get a mole, you think it can just be removed, if you’re even thinking about it that way. It’s a big misconception.”
Michelle has made it her personal mission to educate Elizabeth Grady students and the public on the realities of melanoma, sun safety, and prevention. She also wants to stop the spread of misinformation on this common form of cancer.
melanoma realities: “there is no such thing as remission.”
Since 2011, Michelle has had 10 total biopsies and 3 surgeries. “A lot of people believe that your dermatologist can simply remove a mole and poof, you are cancer free. In reality, these are invasive, traumatic biopsies and surgeries that will change your body forever.” Punch biopsies are used to remove skin deep in the dermis, not just from the skin’s surface, and melanoma removal surgeries can require dozens of stitches and leave permanent scars and indentations. There are often shooting pains near Michelle’s scars, and she has permanent loss of sensation near some of the surgery sites.
Michelle also had several lymph nodes removed and biopsied. “My doctor said ‘once it goes into the lymphatic system, the conversation changes from what are you going to do with the rest of your life to specific numbers.’ He said I would be looking at 5 years, maybe 2 years…They believe that the lymphatic system is as close to your bloodstream as you get, and this gives melanoma the opportunity to affect other organs. This is when it gets really deadly and why early detection is so important.” Thankfully, Michelle’s lymph node biopsies were benign, but for many others whose melanomas are not caught as early, this is a common fate.
Michelle has graciously allowed us to share her post-surgery photographs with you.
When the surgeries are over, the patient’s “work” is just beginning. Michelle wears sun block with an SPF of at least 30 (50 on her face) daily, avoids the sun during peak hours, and wears clothing with UV protection. She wears compression tights to help relieve swelling caused by fluid retention.
Every 3 months, she has an appointment with her doctors. Every 3 months, she waits to hear if she is melanoma free for the moment. “There is no remission in melanoma. Once you have it, you have it. That’s another common misunderstanding,” she says. Unlike some other cancers, once your cells know how to create melanomas, there is nothing to stop them but your own advocacy.
“be your own advocate!”
“You have to be your own advocate!” Michelle tells students during a Q & A about her cancer. She explains that while you might see an expert every few months or once a year for a body scan, it’s often you, a close family member, boyfriends and girlfriends who notice abnormal moles. In fact, it was Michelle’s boyfriend who noticed an abnormal mole on her thigh and encouraged her to see a dermatologist. Knowing your body and educating yourself and those around you on the ABCDEs of moles can help catch a cancerous mole in the early stages. Watch the asymmetry, border, color, diameter, and evolution of new and existing moles. Early detection can increase your 5-year survival rate by 95%.
Because there is still so much unknown about the direct causes of melanoma, it’s important to be aware of family history, too. While Michelle did go tanning early in her life, she might also be genetically predisposed to melanoma. “Years and years ago, my mother had a large mole removed, but I’ve been unable to track down her pathology reports since she passed.” Michelle has donated her DNA for testing to help doctors and scientists research the potential links between genetics and melanoma.
embrace your natural color
“It’s important to educate people about the negative effects of unprotected sun exposure, but it’s also important to encourage kids to recognize the beauty of their natural skin color. Tanning, particularly tanning beds, is an epidemic and creates unhealthy, unrealistic body images and “tanning addicts,” according to Michelle. The Melanoma Foundation of New England explains that tanning beds emit 3 to 6 times the amount of radiation of the natural sun and dramatically increase your risk of melanoma. “We need to reinforce the beauty of every skin color, as well as reinforce that the only safe tan is the kind you get from a bottle or airbrush machine.
you don’t have to live in a bubble
In many ways, Michelle believes her diagnosis has been a blessing, because she is able to reach a large audience through her role as a skincare professional and educator. She also stresses that her life goes on and that she refuses to let the cancer control her.
“My favorite place was the beach. Not because I wanted to get a tan, but the relaxation, the beauty of the ocean and sand…so, my doctor made a deal with me and said I could have every sunrise and sunset. I can still go hiking, skiing, and go to a water park. I just have to be very careful about the hours I’m outdoors and protect myself all the time.”
If you want to learn more about skin cancer and melanoma, please visit the trusted websites below.