A cancer diagnosis was the last thing then 22-year-old Jacqueline Smith had on her mind. She was young, close to graduating from college and was confident that her future was bright.
But there was a sinking feeling that something wasn’t right.
“I had this lump in my bikini line that wouldn’t go away. I went to the doctor at school and was told that it wasn’t a big deal and that it was probably an ingrown hair. One doctor told me that I just had an inflamed lymph node and that if it wasn’t bothering me than I shouldn’t bother it,” Jacqueline Smith told HelloBeautiful in an exclusive interview.
While the New Jersey-native followed doctor’s orders and “left it alone,” she found it difficult to ignore that nagging voice that insisted to get it checked again. And that’s what she did when she moved back in with her parents after graduation.
Looking back, Jacqueline swears that was the best decision she’s ever made.
“My doctor at home took a look at it and said that I needed to see an oncologist, just as a precaution.”
Soon after, Jacqueline was given her results: She had stage-3 melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which is most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds.
When she heard those words, not only was she upset, she was also shocked.
“I kept thinking, ‘I am not a fair skinned middle aged woman! How is this possible? We don’t get skin cancer,’” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
“I remember being in middle school and people telling me that I didn’t need sun screen because I was darker skinned.”
But Jacqueline isn’t alone: Too many Black women and women of color aren’t aware of our risks. Yes, our melanin gives us added protection from the sun’s rays, but it doesn’t render us exempt from developing skin cancer. And while melanoma is more common among whites than African-Americans, sadly, our health outcomes are worse.
According to Cancer.org, the five-year survival rate for African-Americans is 69 percent compared with 93 percent for whites. Experts believe this mortality gap is largely due to the fact that by the time African-Americans are diagnosed, their cancer is at an advanced stage (52 percent compared to 16 percent among whites), which makes it harder to treat.
Also add in the lack of access to health care and a dermatologist, and it’s no wonder why this racial health disparity continues to persist.
With the love and support of her parents, friends and faith, Jacqueline focused on the future and beating cancer.
“I grew up going to church and that’s helped me to not worry about what I cannot control.”
Her treatment included removing a lymph node and adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach after doctors confirmed that they didn’t detect any cancerous cells.
But three years later, Jacqueline noticed another lump in her groin.
“They were trying to be optimistic, but I had been down this road before. I knew what it was,” she said.
“They did a biopsy and told me that it was melanoma. I was devastated.”
This time around, removing a lymph node and adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach wasn’t going to cut it. Jacqueline’s cancer was aggressive and she needed surgery and serious treatment. Soon after, she was sent to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida to get multiple lymph nodes removed, start an experimental interferon treatment through a clinical trial and undergo radiation.
“Part of me thought I was going to die. One doctor even told me that it would be a miracle if I lived for another five years. Thankfully, Dr. Sondak from the Moffitt Cancer Center was encouraging and said, ‘We’re getting this cancer out.’”
Dr. Sondak explained to HelloBeautiful the rareness of Jacqueline’s cancer given that she didn’t have any strange moles or skin discolorations, which are common signs of skin cancer.
“We believe Jackie’s melanoma started on the skin before it went to the lymph nodes and if so she is one of those rare cases.”
He also shared some knowledge on common areas that African-Americans develop skin cancer.
“Melanomas that occur on other parts of the body that are not normally exposed to the sun – the soles of the feet, under the fingernails and toenails— are rare but they make up a larger percentage of the cases of melanoma in African-Americans.”
Ten years later, 36-year-old Jacqueline is wonderfully cancer-free.
While she suffers from a few complications and hates that any small health issue such as low iron levels or a pain can ring the alarm that her cancer might be back, she’s living life to the fullest and is even she finishing her PhD in sociology.
Jacqueline has also made it her life’s work to educate the Black community of the dangers of skin cancer.
“It’s important to share my story with other African-Americans so that they can understand that skin cancer is our problem too. I’ve worked with other cancer organizations and have even been to Capitol Hill to spread the word!”
And the impact of her advocacy has definitely been recognized.
“Jackie’s story has been a big help in this regard – she’s done more than anyone I know to help spread the word about the risk of skin cancer and especially melanoma regardless of your skin coloration,” Sondak said.
Dr. Sondak and Jacqueline offer up this advice:
Don’t Slack On Getting Screened: While there is no “one size fits all” approach to how often you get checked, you still need to get checked.
“Age, overall health, family history, skin coloration, past history of skin problems and sunburns and other factors all play a role in defining how often a person should be checked by a doctor and whether that doctor should be a dermatologist. But getting your skin checked is painless and usually takes less than an hour. Be sure to get your fingernails and toenails and your palms and soles checked as part of the process, and always alert your doctor if you notice anything at all wrong with your skin for more than a few days or weeks,” Sondak says.
Also, don’t forget the sunscreen and limiting your direct exposure to the sun, Jacqueline adds.
Advocate For Yourself: No doubt, doctors are experts in their field, says Jacqueline stresses. But she stresses that it’s important to be confident that you are the expert of your own body. You know when things are not right.
“There were so many times I was dismissed and told ‘not to worry.’ ” Had I listened to that, not spoke up and got checked by my own doctor, I would probably be dead,” she admits.
Don’t Fear Clinical Trials: As part of her treatment, Jacqueline enrolled in a clinical trial, which she knows African-Americans are weary of given our tumultuous history of mistreatment by the medical community. But in her eyes, it was definitely worth it. “God forbid you have cancer, but if you do and are offered to be in a clinical trial, strongly consider enrolling, because it can definitely save and change the quality of your life.”
Learn more about skin cancer at skincancer.org.