After skin cancer diagnosis, she now encourages others to protect themselves
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
One of the big pieces of advice Julie Meyer offers to others is, don’t wait. If they see something out of the ordinary with a mole or spot on their skin, get it looked at immediately.
About eight years ago, Meyer, who grew up in Sauk Centre and now lives in Watkins, had a small mole on the outside of her upper arm that she had barely noticed. “My mom told me I should get it looked at, but I forgot about it,” said Meyer.
During a routine physical several months later, after nearly forgetting it was there, Meyer barely remembered to ask the doctor about it.
The mole had changed slowly over time, getting darker and maybe slightly larger.
The doctor immediately did a biopsy on the mole. “A couple days later there was a message on the answering machine from the doctor’s office, but it was a busy summer and I didn’t call back,” Meyer said.
“Then, one or two days later there was another message. I called the next day and they read me the pathologist’s report over the phone telling me the mole was cancerous — melanoma,” said Meyer.
“I didn’t know what to do. The doctor recommended a dermatologist, who squeezed me in the very next day,” she said. “Then it felt like there was a rock in my stomach.”
The dermatologist didn’t realize that Meyer hadn’t even spoken to a doctor since the biopsy, and he walked into the exam room and right away started marking her arm where the mole would be removed.
“I asked him to stop and answer some questions first. He didn’t know I hadn’t talked to anyone about treatment options,” said Meyer. “I was glad a friend had come with me.”
“Then the doctor numbed my arm, and the mole was removed right there in the office,” she said.
After that, there was no further treatment. But Meyer underwent a shift in her entire way of thinking as she considered what to make of the experience.
“It was a real mental shift for me,” she said. “I liked being in the sun, and liked being outdoors.”
With her pale complexion, Meyer had also visited tanning booths to get a healthy glow. She had a few bad sunburns as a child, with one extremely severe burn as a first-grader. She has no recollection of ever using sunscreen before.
“Now I put sunscreen on and keep it handy. And I got used to being the person at softball games under an umbrella,” said Meyer.
After her experience with melanoma, Meyer became involved in kickboxing through a friend, Nia Meierhofer.
“I asked Julie if she wanted to come along to kickboxing, and she became very involved,” said Meierhofer.
“Julie’s experience prompted me to immediately make an appointment with a dermatologist to have a full body scan. Now I use sunscreen faithfully, and buy it directly from my dermatologist. I wear a hat and three-quarter or long sleeves when the sun is strongest, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” said Meierhofer.
At a kickboxing class, the instructor challenged the class members to consider eliminating sugar from their diets. They were to come back the following week with their answer.
“I said I’d do it,” said Meyer. “It was hard for about a month, until my thinking shifted.”
“We didn’t always have desserts while I was growing up, and my mom always cut down the amount of sugar that was in a recipe, so I had never eaten a large amount of sweets,” Meyer said, “but it was still a change.”
Since she has followed her mom’s lead, Meyer’s family are used to less sugar in desserts such as banana bread and apple crisp, even though they have not cut it out entirely. But when her eldest daughter was graduating from high school two years ago, Meyer was reminded that she would have to break down and buy pop for the party, which she did.
Meyer used to go to a vending machine in the afternoons to get a candy bar for a pick-up. Once she cut out sweets, she felt a lot better and had more energy, she said.
“Now I bring healthy snacks with me when I’m away from home. But there is still pressure from other people to eat foods with sugar,” she said.
“At a party where I was honored, my friends had provided healthy snacks but still made a cake. When I had to refuse that, they still tried to pressure me to eat it,” said Meyer.
“When I told them that I do not give in to peer pressure, they were okay with it,” she said.
After a couple years of kickboxing, Meierhofer again led Meyer into a new challenge — running. Meierhofer ran in a 5K first, and Meyer was so interested she started running too.
“We progressed from kickboxing to walking together. Julie would walk so fast that I told her we could be running — so we did. She started running some 5Ks and hasn’t looked back,” Meierhofer said.
“I used to run in high school, but wasn’t any good or anything,” said Meyer. “It was a new way to push myself a little bit. Now I feel I need to run, since it helps with stress and gives me more energy.”
“If I know I’m going to have a rough day, I know I’ll be better off if I get up a little earlier and go for a run,” she said.
“My first 5K was in 2009. They were becoming more popular, and I wanted to see if I could do it,” said Meyer. “Since then, I run about seven 5Ks a year, and have done maybe five 10K races too.”
“Two times I’ve been part of a triathlon team with two friends, where I did the running,” she said. “That was fun.”
Meyer’s favorite part of races is seeing all the different people. Everyone is so friendly and supportive of one another, she said.
“I like the whole atmosphere, just being there,” said Meyer. “But I’m really inspired by older runners, women in their 70s.”
“And I like running in the rain. I do well in wet races,” she said.
Meyer, who teaches seventh and eighth grade Language Arts at Sauk Rapids-Rice Middle School, uses opportunities in her classrooms to remind students to take care of themselves. If they look red, she asks them about being out in the sun.
“Kids think nothing is going to happen to them,” she said. “My girls tell me I wouldn’t believe how many kids go to tanning booths.”
“I strongly recommend to everyone to watch a short YouTube video called ‘Dear 16-year-old me,’” said Meyer. “It shows people who have had melanoma and what they would say to their younger selves about taking care of their bodies. Share it with friends.”
That video can be found at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4jgUcxMezM. It takes five minutes.
“People need to know they don’t need a ‘base tan’ before summer starts or they go on vacation,” she said. “You don’t need a tan to look good.”
Sunscreen needs to be put on 30 minutes before going outside. Meyer heard from her dermatologist to be sure not to forget feet and toes. People wear flip-flops and sandals and often get sunburned feet.
Meyer is careful to run in the mornings when the sun is not as strong. “When I do 5Ks I look for those where the route will be in the shade,” she said.
She continues to make regular visits to her dermatologist, and has had several suspicious and pre-cancerous moles and spots removed.
“I encourage people to watch their moles,” said Meyer. “They should have family members or friends look at their back to check there, too.”
“It was a shock to get skin cancer. Sometimes I kind of forget that I had it, and then something will remind me,” she said. “When I’m driving in the car and the sun warms up my arm, I’ll remember that I have to put sunscreen on in the car now, too.”
Within the first year after the cancerous mole was removed, Meyer went to donate blood and found out she couldn’t because it was too soon after the surgery. “I walked out of that place feeling very sickly,” she said.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Meyer said. “Maybe the cancer happened so that I can tell my students and other people to protect their skin.”
“Julie is dedicated to health and to being educated about it,” said Meierhofer, “but she doesn’t push people. She just shares her experience and it speaks for itself.”
“I will never be done with it; I will always have to be vigilant,” she said. “But my faith gets me through every-
thing I encounter in life. God doesn’t give a person more than they can handle.”
“Remember — being pale is ‘in’ and you’ll look better as you age,” Meyer said. “Wear hats.”