Dancing Through a Devastating Skin Cancer Diagnosis
Advocacy “Dancing with the Stars” troupe dancer Witney Carson shares her melanoma survivor story and explains why everyone should know their risks.
Thomas E. Rohrer
MD, ASDS President
One in five Americans will develop some type of skin cancer over the course of their lifetimes. Skin cancer can affect any race, gender or age. With early detection and treatment, however, most skin cancers are completely curable.
Since 2012, skin cancer treatments have risen 35 percent. Skin cancer treatments ranked as the most-performed procedure (3.5 million) by American Society for Dermatologic Surgery members, confirming both the growth of the disease and the demand for dermatologist expertise.
Research has shown that most skin cancers are detected by patients. Performing self-exams and getting annual screenings can dramatically reduce your risks.
Although skin cancer can be deadly, it can be prevented by practicing two sun-safe behaviors: reducing UV exposure, such as outdoor or indoor tanning, and increasing sun protection through the use of sunscreen and protective clothing. When it comes to skin health, prevention is worth the extra effort.
We’re all familiar with the hackneyed mantra “dance like nobody's watching.” But from an early age, Witney Carson knew she was meant to pirouette under the spotlight. The 23-year-old first gained national recognition as a troupe dancer on seasons 16 and 17 of the hit series “Dancing with the Stars.” However, a devastating diagnosis almost derailed her career before it began.
A close call
“I have a family history of skin cancer,” the star reveals. “My dad and my mom both had melanoma, so they’ve always been on top of getting us checked often. We would go in for checkups every year.”
After noticing a new mole on her left foot, Witney’s mother took her to the doctor, who confirmed that the mole was positive for melanoma — known as the deadliest form of skin cancer.
If she had waited three more weeks, Carson would have needed chemotherapy. “I was really taken aback,” she shares. “Your feet are everything if you’re a dancer. I don’t think people are grateful for their bodies … it’s too easy to take them for granted.”
Dancing through the pain
She underwent a four-hour surgery to remove the cancer from her foot, as well as several lymph nodes in her hip. After surgery, Witney was determined to dance through the pain, ignoring her doctor’s orders.
I didn't tell anyone about it,” she laughs. “I walked into the dance studio after surgery. I still had an open wound, but wrapped it up tightly.” Despite being uncertain about her stitches, Witney gave the rehearsal her all. “I looked down and there was a big puddle of blood on the floor. The wound had reopened, and my sock and shoes were drenched.”
Carson thanks physical therapy and her team of doctors for helping her rise to the occasion. “Every night after the show, I would actually go to my doctor and he’d come in after hours and wrap my foot, clean out all the scar tissue and put it back together.”
Now she is using her platform to raise awareness and encourages fans to take skin health seriously. “I grew up performing and going to dance competitions … competing was my life,” she recalls. “I would go to the tanning bed three times per week, every week.”
The American Academy of Dermatology reports that more than half of indoor tanners (52.5 percent) start tanning before age 21, while nearly one-third (32.7 percent) start tanning before age 18. Further research estimates that indoor tanning may cause upwards of 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. every year.
Make sure to wear sunscreen or wear clothing that covers your skin, and avoid tanning beds all together,” she advises. “Even one blistering sunburn doubles your chances of getting cancer. Everyone is at risk — no matter skin color or age.
Witney’s advice for those facing a recent melanoma diagnosis? “Try not to be depressed —you can get through it. Keep your family close to you, and have hope.”