Melanoma Survivor

Survivor Turns Melanoma Diagnosis into Just a ‘Bump in the Road’

LeAnn Hankel didn’t even know she was at a higher risk for skin cancer. So when she was diagnosed with melanoma at age 28, this married mother of two could barely believe the news. She quickly took action, however, relying on the love and support of her family to get her through treatment. Now realizing the power of early detection, she encourages others to get checked early and often.

Even though I had never paid much attention to changes in my skin, I was a little worried about a spot I noticed on my shoulder. Turns out I should have been paying more attention to my back.

At a routine gynecology appointment, I mentioned the suspicious spot to my doctor. When he found out I had never been to a dermatologist, he encouraged me to make an appointment. Once there, I learned that my shoulder wasn’t the problem. The dermatologist completed a full-body exam and found two moles on my back he considered abnormal—larger than the head of a pencil eraser and a little discolored. He promptly removed them both and sent them to the lab.

When the news came, I did not react well. After all, no one likes to hear, “I’m sorry, but your lab results have come back positive for cancer.” One of the two moles tested positive for early-stage melanoma. I was almost in a complete state of denial. Aren’t I too young for cancer? What about my kids? This can’t really be happening to me!

At the time, I didn’t want to answer a bunch of questions from people – plus I was still pretty emotional about the news – so I kept the diagnosis to myself, aside from my close family members, who provided a great deal of love and support.

Once I calmed down and was able to speak with my doctor, I quickly realized that I was lucky, that the melanoma was caught early and was curable. We discussed my options, and because the cancer was still localized and hadn’t yet spread to any lymph nodes, surgery was my best treatment option.

The incision in my back was 3 inches wide, 8 inches long and 3 millimeters deep, but the surgeon was able to remove the melanoma as well as plenty of healthy skin surrounding it. My surgical margins came back clear (no cancer detected) and the melanoma had not spread, so no chemotherapy or radiation was needed.

I did suffer some nerve damage once the wound healed, and I wasn’t able to bend over or lift anything for quite a while after the surgery—a pretty mild side effect but extremely difficult when you have a 16-month-old at home. Thankfully, I had plenty of help from my husband as well as my mom, who came to stay with us and help out with the kids while I healed. Once I got through that, I haven’t had any permanent side effects.

I’m so thankful for the support we got from my family, especially my husband, who was my biggest cheerleader. Because of my family, I was able to chalk up my diagnosis to just a slight bump in the road—and quite the learning experience. Our children were very young at the time, so they didn’t really understand what was happening, which was how we preferred it. And because we knew the melanoma was treatable, we wanted to keep our home routine as normal as possible.

My doctor explained to me that early detection saved my life—that if it had not been spotted, the melanoma would have quickly spread to other parts of my body. This whole experience has definitely changed my daily routine as well as our whole family’s routine! Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t pay much attention to my skin or my daily habits, but now we are all much more sun-safe. We still spend plenty of time outdoors, but we make sure we include plenty of sunblock and lip balm. Plus, I now wear sunglasses, a hat and additional clothing to cover as much skin as I can when we’re out in the sun. I also make sure to keep a close eye on my skin between doctor visits to look for anything suspicious.

It turns out that my complexion and family history – along with regular sun exposure and plenty of other moles – had increased my skin cancer risk without even knowing it. So it was very important to me to educate my family about melanoma and skin cancer and encourage them to get checked. In fact, not long after my surgery, my sister found a mole that tested for Stage 0 melanoma. When I heard the news, my heart sank, but I knew that my experience, while not anything I wanted, helped her. And that’s made it all worth it.

After all, life isn’t always fair, but it’s up to us to make the very best out of what we have!