'I never should have used tanning beds': ‘DWTS’ star Witney Carson on being diagnosed with melanoma at 22

Witney Carson (Photo<span> courtesy of Jon Volk</span>)
Witney Carson (Photo courtesy of Jon Volk)

Witney Carson was 22 when she learned that a discoloration on her foot was actually melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Sadly, stories like hers are becoming all too common. The American Academy of Dermatology and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries say melanoma is on the rise, especially among young women, ages 15-29, and is the second most common form of cancer in this age group. In this exclusive Yahoo essay, Carson discusses how she was treated for melanoma, the upcoming season of DWTS, and what she wants everyone to know about this potentially deadly form of skin cancer.

I have a family history of skin cancer. My mom and dad both had melanomas removed, and they have always insisted their four children get annual dermatology checkups. Still, I was shocked when my doctor found a small strawberry-colored mole on the top of my left foot and wanted to biopsy it. I was even more surprised when the biopsy results came back positive for melanoma, a type of skin cancer that is more likely to grow and spread.

Even though my parents had brushes with skin cancer, I never thought it could happen to me. I was 22 at the time of my diagnosis and truly believed I was invincible. I didn’t realize how serious melanoma was until the doctor told me if I had waited three weeks longer, I would have needed chemotherapy. That’s when I grasped the severity of the situation.

My doctor said surgery was the best option to remove the cancer completely. As all this was happening, I received a call from Dancing With the Stars inviting me to be a professional dancer on the show. It was a dream come true! I asked my doctor if I could wait to have surgery until after the season was done filming, but he said if I waited, I would probably need chemo. I decided to proceed with the surgery and hope for the best with the show. I started dancing at the age of 3 and I had always dreamed of being a professional dancer — I couldn’t stop now.

Alfonso Ribeiro and Witney Carson were crowned the Season 19 Champions on the season finale of <em>Dancing with the Stars</em>. (Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC via Getty Images)
Alfonso Ribeiro and Witney Carson were crowned the Season 19 Champions on the season finale of Dancing with the Stars. (Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC via Getty Images)

During surgery, they discovered the cancer had spread into my lymph nodes all the way up to my hip. They removed the mole on my foot and about an inch of skin surrounding it. They also took out four lymph nodes in my hip. My recovery took about a month and was brutal to say the least. I’m not one to complain about pain, but it was a long process. I tore open my stitches my first day back at DWTS, and there were pools of blood everywhere! It made the recovery so much worse. I had to see a foot specialist every week after the show to rewrap my foot, remove scar tissue, and send me on my way. I also did physical therapy as soon as the scar healed, for about six months.

Looking back, I never should have used tanning beds when I was a teen. (Editor’s note: a new study found that using indoor tanning beds, even just several times, can seriously increase your risk of developing skin cancer.) I use a self-tanner now since that’s really the only way to get a “safe” tan. I’m also launching my own body glow self-tanner this year in response to fans asking how I maintain a tan for the show without using tanning beds. I never lay out or try to get tan from the sun, I just apply self-tanner and it does the trick.

If I could do things differently, I also should have worn a hat and sunscreen every day of my life. Your skin is your largest organ, which means you have to protect it that much more. It’s so important for women and men, young or old, to be cautious when spending time in the sun. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the outdoors, but be proactive and protect your skin when you’re outside. Wear an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen and reapply it every hour, wear hats, and cover up as much as you can when exposed to sunlight. People of all ages are susceptible to melanoma. It’s the fastest spreading cancer out there. Don’t make the mistake I did and think you’re invincible — it’s important to take precautions.

Today, I’m celebrating two years of marriage to my husband, Carson McAllister, and I continue to get regular dermatology checkups every year. I also developed an activewear line for women, CAPRI, that launches this fall. I basically live in activewear/dancewear, so I know what women need to wear to feel comfortable and confident while moving. This line is for every woman, whether they like to dance, weight lift, enjoy high intensity workouts, or running.

I’m also looking forward to the new season of Dancing With the Stars, which premieres on Sept. 24, and I’m very excited about the new Dancing With the Stars Juniors series, which starts on Oct. 7. On the Juniors show, dance professionals will be mentoring two children, one pro and one celebrity. I’m so grateful to be a part of the DWTS Juniors. These kids are so talented, their pure joy is something America needs to see.

My life is filled with so many things I’m grateful for, and one thing I’ll never take for granted again is protecting my skin. If there’s any way I can get you to protect yours too, well then I’m twice as happy.

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