My Journey: Battling Cancer and Raising Awareness

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I am Amy Nichole, a passionate photographer with a specialization in pet portraits and landscape photography. My career takes me on a journey to capture the beauty of the world, outdoors and occasionally in the studio. From the day I was born, my fair skin, adorned with freckles and a hint of reddish tones in my brown hair, has been a part of my identity.

My connection to the world of skin health and cancer began at the tender age of 8 when I experienced a severe sunburn that left behind a unique birthmark-like pattern on my right arm and parts of my back. Worried for my well-being, my mother took me to see a doctor, but they dismissed it as a mere sun reaction.

As I entered my teenage years, having tan skin was the trend. With my British, French, and Irish heritage, I had a fair complexion that didn’t tan easily. Desperate to fit in, I tried various methods, from sunbathing for hours covered in oil to using tanning sprays. To my dismay, my “birthmark” only grew darker, and soon, moles and spots began to appear. It ended up being a severe case of Dysplastic nevus syndrome.

Regular skin checks, every 3-6 months, became a top priority for me after my time with the dermatologist.

Then, in June 2016, during a personal ABCDE (Asymmetry, Border, Color, Diameter, Evolving) assessment, I noticed a spot on my upper chest that had significantly changed in size. I voiced my concerns to my dermatologist, who agreed that a biopsy was in order. Thankfully, my proactive stance paid off. Four days later, my dermatologist called with the news: it was melanoma at Stage 1B, very close to transitioning to Stage 2. We promptly scheduled my first excision and successfully removed the melanoma before it could worsen. I was 28 years old.

Two years of being cancer-free, and then another scare. I began seeing a highly recommended dermatologist, but our rapport never quite clicked. Despite his suggestion to reduce check-ins to once a year, I declined.

In February 2019, I returned for our agreed-upon 6-month appointment and raised concerns about a spot that had grown back over a scar that was previously pre-cancerous moderate dysplastic nevus. After 2 months, the spot had grown over the scar with a new spot right across from it. After some back-and-forth, I insisted on a biopsy and he agreed to do a biopsy on just one of the spots. A few days later, the doctor confirmed that I had Stage 1B melanoma. During my Mohs surgery, they had to go in three times, extending the operation to over six hours. During that visit, I requested that the surgeon biopsy the other spot that was across from the one he was working on. To my dismay, those results also came back as a third melanoma diagnosis stage 1A.

Subsequently, I was referred to an oncologist for further testing. However, I refuse to let these challenges define me or bring me down. With an incredible support system and unwavering determination, I face the road ahead with resilience.

In November 2022, I confronted another battle, this time with cervical cancer, and underwent successful surgery for its removal. Due to my unique cancer markers, I am at a higher risk for other types of cancer.

May 2023 brought another chapter in my journey: a fourth melanoma appearing on my upper right back within that distinctive birthmark-like design. It was at Stage 0, and I underwent a local wide excision, preventing it from progressing to Stage 1.

Since that day, my life has revolved around caring for my skin, especially while spending extensive time outdoors in Nevada. I’ve adopted habits like always wearing long sleeves, hats, pants, and other protective measures, even in the sweltering heat.

I’m passionate about educating the younger generation and all age groups about protecting their skin. Some of my top brands for sun protection include Coolibar, SkinnVi, Tutublue, SwimZip Swimwear, BloqUV, and Wallaroo Hat Company for hats.

Skin cancer is serious and your skin is your biggest organ on your body.

My advice to all of you is to be aware of the dangers of the sun and do not make the same mistake that I did. You now have the resources to know what it will do to you at the end of the day. Get your skin checked. Be diligent about protecting your skin. That means applying and re-applying an SPF of 30 or higher, no matter the weather condition. Other methods can include wearing protective UPF 50 clothing, sunglasses, sun gloves and wide brim hats. 

You are your biggest advocate. We have to put our trust in the doctors, but at the same time you need to go with your gut and not be afraid to voice your concern. Learn to love the skin that you are in and accept your true skin tone. For all of the Melanoma and skin cancer survivors, scars are beautiful and it shares the journey we’ve been through. We all have a story and don’t be afraid to share yours. Because at the end of the day you are not alone.

By: Amy Nichole Harbison