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Healing the Scars of Having Skin Cancer so Young

Read Time: 3 minutes
Olivia Gregg, Community Health Educator Intern

The Gerber Family
The Gerber Family

Imagine you’re young, happy, in love, and starting your life. You notice a small mole on your face, nothing much, but decide you want it gone. After visiting a plastic surgeon, he tells you it's melanoma.

“You got my biopsy mixed up with the old guy across the hall!” she exclaimed to the doctor. But he hadn’t. “It floored me.” MaryAnn Gerber had stage 1B melanoma and was scheduled for surgery within a week of being diagnosed. About four months later, she was declared cancer-free, but the physical and emotional scars took much longer to heal.

“I couldn’t even move a whole side of my face. It took about a year to fully form a smile again.” The scars from surgery went from the side of her nostril, diagonally, across her cheek. She also had long scars across her neck where lymph nodes were removed. “I felt like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

MaryAnn stayed home as much as she could. “When people asked about my scars, I told them I got into fights or attacked by a bear, and they would believe me … but as soon as I told people I had skin cancer, nobody believed that.” This disbelief that someone in their 20’s could have melanoma led MaryAnn to feel a lack of support—even after she was cancer-free.

At her lowest point, MaryAnn saw a Utah Cancer Action Network (UCAN) ad. “I thought, maybe I can do something good out of all this, and this may make me feel better.” She called UCAN and asked how she could help. She was on the local news a few weeks later telling her story.

MaryAnn speaking to local news
MaryAnn speaking to local news

Soon, MaryAnn and others started devoting a great deal of time to activism. In 2012, she and her colleagues went to the Utah State Capitol to speak to representatives about Senate Bill 41, which restricted the age for tanning bed use. This topic was a major concern of MaryAnn’s, because, with no family history of skin cancer, she believes her own use of tanning beds caused melanoma. Her education and outreach efforts also included talking to young children and teens about skin cancer, sun safety, and the dangers of tanning beds.

MaryAnn and other advocates with Governor Herbert
MaryAnn and other advocates with Governor Herbert

Despite work of advocates like MaryAnn, Utah continues to have the highest rate of melanoma in the nation—more than double the national average, and the Utah Department of Health shows the melanoma rate continues to rise. One area—Summit County , where Park City is located—has a startling rate of more than 70 cases for every 100,000 people. Learn more about skin cancer screening and prevention.

Today, MaryAnn is raising a young family. Her activism work has slowed down, yet she still sees the importance. “I survived this and I’m going to educate others so they don’t have to go through what I went through.”

Cancer touches all of us.