Professional dancer Witney Carson dreamt of being cast on Dancing With The Stars as a 7-year-old girl. As a teenager, she accomplished her goal (like a boss I might add), but not without some serious obstacles due to a scary skin cancer. To highlight Skin Cancer Awareness month (and Melanoma Monday today) and help debunk many myths and misconceptions surrounding sunscreen, she’s partnering with sun-care favorite EltaMD (also one of the busy mom’s go-to brands for SPF). Here, she shares her story.
How did you discover you had skin cancer?
“When I was 19, my mom noticed a strawberry-colored mole on the top of my foot and said we should go check it out. It was on top left side of my foot and a little bit misshaped, but the most important thing is that it was growing. My mom was hypersensitive because both of my parents had melanoma, so it ran in the family. But of course being a teenager in high school, I just thought I was invincible and skin cancer never crossed my mind at all—I was using tanning beds and not wearing sunscreen or protecting my skin at all. I wasn’t really worried, but then we got the results back and they were positive for melanoma.”
How did it affect your dancing?
“It’s actually a really crazy story. Right at the same time I got my diagnosis I was also auditioning for Dancing With The Stars. I had just finished So You Think You Can Dance and I had done the tour—I’m so thankful for it because it really launched my career—but my whole life I wanted to be on Dancing With The Stars. That was my dream since I was 7 years old. And then I had the chance to be on the show and I had this melanoma on my foot, so I didn’t tell anyone—even the producers—for a long time. I underwent a few different abrasive surgeries and it was really hard for me because I was torn between going after my dream and taking care of my health. Ultimately I chose to take care of my health, and luckily I had three weeks to heal before the show went live.
My first partner was Cody Simpson [Season 18 in 2014], and I didn’t even have the OK from my doctors at that point to do any form of exercise on my foot at all. I also had an incision on my hip because the cancer had spread to lymph nodes in my hip, so my foot and my hip were still recovering. I get to LA, no one knows anything, and I get to rehearsals the first day and I’m going all out with the dancing, of course—not caring about my body at all—and my foot became super hot. I thought I was sweating like crazy, but I looked down at my white tennis shoe and it was completely drenched in blood.
I told everyone I was sick and went home, took my shoe off and my stitches had ripped wide open. I found a wound care specialist in LA and I wrapped my foot every week in rehearsal going forward, and still, no one knew. I found a way to make the show happen and take care of my health. It was a crazy time.”
Wow, superwoman! Why did you need multiple surgeries?
“When you have a mole and have to undergo surgery, they have to take an inch in diameter around the mole. So because mine was on my foot where there isn’t a lot of skin, they had to pull it tight—they were also talking about taking a skin graft from my calf and moving it to my foot. Luckily they didn’t have to do that and they were able to stretch the skin and sew it that way.
And then I also needed surgery on my left hip because the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes there, and they chose to remove all of them just to be safe, so I have a two-inch scar on my hip as well. For the lucky people, it’s just scraping a mole off, but for others like me, it involves multiple surgeries. Another scary statistic: Two people die of skin cancer in the US every hour. I feel lucky that I got off not having to do chemo or anything like that.”
Speaking of wearing sunscreen, what are your favorite products right now?
“For my face and neck, EltaMD has an amazing UV Restore Tinted SPF 40. I love this one specifically because as a working mom, I can’t fuss with a ton of skin-care products, and this one kind of serves as a moisturizer and a sunscreen, and it has a slight tint so it gives my skin that healthy glow. I also love the UV Daily because it contains hyaluronic acid so it’s super hydrating and I love how it feels on my skin. They also have a Lip Balm, and a lot of people forget sunscreen on their lips, but it’s absolutely the worst when your lips are burned, so it’s great because it’s SPF 36 and I feel like I put it on once and it lasts for hours .”
Which SPF do you use on your feet?
“I use the UV Daily on my feet, too, or UV Sport. I have a really big scar on my foot, so sometimes I’ll use the new UV Stick, which is SPF 50, over my scar as well.”
I feel like many people don’t apply sunscreen to their feet, even at the beach.
“I know. It’s kind of crazy that my skin cancer was on my foot because that’s kind of the last place you think of to apply it. There are always those quirky little spots, like your scalp, your eyelids, your lips, your feet. It’s important to get all the little nooks and crannies, even if you’re just going for a walk—just put your sunscreen on. This statistic actually really shocked me: 90 percent of Americans just skip their daily sunscreen completely. Obviously wearing sunscreen is really important—and reapplying!—but so is wearing sunglasses, protective clothes and wide-brim hats to protect your whole face and body, as well as finding shady areas when you’re in the sun.
Also, everyone should be checked annually for skin cancer. I know so many people who have had it and didn’t know. I’m so grateful to be cancer-free today, so this is an opportunity for me to really blast it out there—especially to the teens and young people—that wearing sunscreen and preventing skin cancer is incredibly important.”
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