“I would have died and left my four kids behind. I never would have spotted it,” Kelly Avery told Newsweek, crediting her friend with saving her life not once but twice.
When Avery, 43, noticed a lump on the back of her arm in early 2018, she asked Gary Blanchfield, who she worked with at a nursing home, to have a look at it. After taking one glance at it, he was more concerned by the small brown mark next to the lump and urged Avery to get that checked immediately.
The caution in her friend and colleague’s voice was striking, so Avery knew it must be serious. She grew fearful that it could be melanoma.
The mother-of-four from Tampa, Florida, told Newsweek that she was “nervous and a little bit scared because it’s one of those silent cancers.”
“I had so many blistering sunburns when I was younger, which predisposes you to having melanoma,” she said.
As the tiny painless mark was hidden on the back of Avery’s arm, she said that she never would have seen it herself. Had it not been for Blanchfield’s intervention, it could have been a very different outcome.
“It was brown and about the size of a pea. It was raised, and the borders weren’t regular, so it was kind of choppy around the edges. Gary told me to get it checked out because it looked like melanoma, but I didn’t even know it was back there,” Avery said.
“I went for my appointment, and the nurse practitioner looked at the spot and said she was going to biopsy it. I had to go back two weeks later to have it removed because they didn’t want to wait any longer. The doctor said it had grown in those two weeks, and he told me that if I had left it for a few months, I probably would’ve been in a really bad situation.”
Following the biopsy, Avery was diagnosed with melanoma in August 2018, the most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most typical sign of skin cancer is a notable change in the skin, which could be a growth, a sore, or a new mole that develops.
For melanoma, the area will have a jagged border and uneven color tone and may change over a span of weeks or months.
A rise in melanoma cases in recent years has led the American Cancer Society to estimate that approximately 97,610 new cases will be diagnosed in 2023, resulting in 7,990 deaths. Although the average age to receive a diagnosis is 65, melanoma can occur at any age and is prevalent in young females.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the risk of melanoma or to catch it early. Dr. Jonathan Leventhal, the director of the Onco-Dermatology Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center said that UV exposure is the primary risk of skin cancer, so the importance of sun safety shouldn’t be underestimated.
“UV exposure is the greatest environmental risk factor, so prevention includes avoiding UV damage to the skin,” Leventhal told Newsweek. “Avoid tanning beds, protect skin outdoors by seeking shade, wear protective clothing, hat, and sunglasses, apply broad-spectrum sunscreen SPF 30 or above, and reapply frequently.
“Other risk factors are genetic and include having a large number of moles and light skin, which predisposes to sunburns, and family history of skin cancer. Anyone with these risk factors and especially a personal history of skin cancer or atypical moles should see a dermatologist. Early detection of skin cancer can save a life,” he said.
If people are concerned, Dr. Leventhal advises them to think of it as “the ugly duckling sign” when looking for moles or lesions. If they stand out compared to other moles or marks, he implores people to seek a dermatologist for any concerns.
‘I Shaved My Whole Head So They Could Look for More’
Shortly after her diagnosis, Avery had to have four square inches of the skin removed from her arm, but the fear of developing more cancer cells only heightened thereafter.
As a full skin check discovered seven other areas where there were abnormal cells, she became anxious about new marks or changes in her body.
“I was nervous and afraid that maybe there were other ones that they didn’t see, so I shaved my whole head so they could look on my scalp for more melanoma. I was very nervous that there was something up there and they couldn’t see it, which was extreme,” Avery said.
“The diagnosis made me paranoid, and it still does. I still look at the different freckles I have all the time and want to get them checked out. I go to have them looked at every six months now and I’m always pointing small marks out as I’m so paranoid about it.”
Blanchfield may have saved Avery’s life in 2018, but that wasn’t the end of his heroic efforts. Many months later, while showing him the scar from the melanoma surgery, he noticed another small mark, this time on the wound.
“I showed him the scar from the melanoma that he found and I told him that the doctor said he saved my life. He looked at it and said, that’s a cool scar, but you need to get that checked out and he pointed to a spot on the scar. So, I ended up going back to the doctor and it was melanoma, meaning Gary saved me twice.”
Sadly, Blanchfield passed away in 2020. Avery remembers him fondly as the reason she is still here today, because she may have never got the mark on her skin checked otherwise. While Avery gets biannual skin checks to ensure there are no further developments, her children also get examined because individuals with a family history are at greater risk.
“Looking back, knowing that he effectively saved my life makes me feel so sad. I never would have known, and nobody else would have seen it either because it was right where my shirt would usually be,” Avery told Newsweek.
“Melanoma has a genetic link, so my kids get skin checks every year now too. When my son was 8, on his first check, they found an abnormal mole on his wrist and they had to remove it. Then they did a second scraping to go deeper because it would have turned into melanoma otherwise.
“He was only 8. That’s so young. It shows that you’ve got to be aware, and wear sunscreen.”
‘A Good Way to Honor Gary’s Memory’
In August 2023, Avery decided to share her story on TikTok, under the username @shrinkingwhilegrowing. Alongside the series of images showing how a tiny mark led to a huge surgery scar, Avery said that Blanchfield will “always be [her] hero.”
The video touched many hearts online and went viral, generating more than 438,000 views and 5,000 likes.
“I did not expect that reaction to my post on TikTok, it just really took off,” she said. “It was a very positive reaction and there were people who were glad I’d got it checked because they had a family member who had passed away from melanoma.
“A lot of people were saying that they have some spots which they’ll go get checked out now too, so it was a good way to honor Gary’s memory.”
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