Danielle Janofsky was originally diagnosed with melanoma in 2015 after having a suspicious mole removed from her shoulder. She was given a “good prognosis,” and continued to visit the dermatologist for tri-monthly checkups. On February 8, she went to the hospital, six months pregnant, complaining of abdominal pains. Doctors found the melanoma had spread to her kidney, stomach, liver, and brain. The only treatment option was immunotherapy, which is not advisable for pregnant women. Danielle went on to give birth to healthy baby Jake before dying three days later.
Pregnancy and Melanoma Detection
How was it that it such a deadly form of cancer managed to go undetected for so long? According to Dr. Sapna Patel, a melanoma oncologist, pregnancy may have something to do with it. “It’s possible that pregnancy is a type of immune suppression. Your body is really focusing on its efforts on growing another human being, so it’s a little distracted on really taking care of itself.”
She explains that in most cases, after a melanoma is removed from the body, the immune system surveillance system goes into action, recognizing cancer cells and preventing them from harming you. However, when you are pregnant, the surveillance system can go down because it is more focused on fostering new life, making detection difficult.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, with over 87,000 Americans diagnosed each year. However, the spread of the disease can be greatly minimized with early detection. If melanoma is detected in stage 1, when it is still confined to the outer layer of skin, patients can do well. Deeper melanomas involving lymph nodes, on the other hand can metastasize more than 50 percent of the time. As Patel notes, “Melanoma is the only cancer that’s deadly in millimeters.”
If you’re doing a self melanoma check, look out for:
- Itching or bleeding moles
- Spots that don’t heal
- Dark spots under the finger and toenails
- Flat red spots that turn scaly and rough
- Painful and tender spots
Be sure to check thoroughly, between finger and toes, under arms, below breasts, behind ears and on genitals. Use a blow dryer to check scalp. If you notice a suspicious lesion, contact your dermatologist immediately.
You should also seek yearly professional skin exams in which your dermatologist will examine your entire body for moles and legions. Some practices will keep a photographic record of moles to track changes between appointments.
Are you conducting self-exams for melanoma? Let us know how you’re keeping safe in this season of sunburns and weigh in on Danielle’s story.