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Spotlight On… Polka Dot Mama Tracy Callahan

Polka Dot Mama Tracy Callahan – A Melanoma Survivor

Imagine this…

You’re a vivacious mom and wife, sister and friend. You have a great photography business, to go along with your career as a nurse, and you have so much yet to do in this incredible life you’re living. Then, it appears – an odd-looking mole. It’s not like the other ones you have, there’s something different about this one. So, at the urging of your husband you make an appointment to go have it checked out. Then, after your exam, you receive THAT phone call from the doctor where you hear the “M” word.  Yes, you’ve got melanoma, but it was caught early. Whew!

I can tell you that my thoughts would still be back on that “M” word, not letting me hear any of the rest of the phone call.  My mind would be racing. What do I do now? What is going to happen to me? What about my family and my career?  And then over the course of the next year, imagine that you receive that call two more times!  Yes, TWO more times! Well, if you’re Tracy Callahan, any negative thoughts don’t last long. You will win that “stare down” with melanoma because you have a lot of life to live ahead of you.

Now Meet Polka Dot Mama Tracy Callahan Melanoma Survivor

I had the very good fortune of meeting Tracy through my sister about a year ago, although I must admit that I had heard of her prior to that through a fellow photographer who sang her praises as one who does amazing work with babies. Tracy is a bundle of positive energy who knows that we have one life and so living it with positivity is the only option. And remember, Tracy is a three-time survivor! Take that, melanoma!  You can’t keep this chick down. Actually, rather than calling Tracy a Survivor, I should say she is a Thriver because that’s exactly how she has lived her life.

I contacted Tracy recently to find out if she would be open to letting me write a blog post about her and about her foundation, the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation. I was absolutely thrilled when she agreed to it because I get to show you why I have total admiration for this amazing woman who has made it her goal in life to raise awareness about melanoma. So, we got together and I learned so much more than I ever could imagine. And quite honestly, my admiration for Tracy, and now also for her Foundation, has grown exponentially.

Melanoma Awareness – About Polka Dot Mama (Video included with Tracy Callahan’s permission)

And So The Journey Begins

Sue: Thanks so much for agreeing to meet with me. I find your story to be really amazing. Can you tell me a little bit about how your melanoma diagnosis turned into this incredible journey of advocacy that you are on with your foundation, the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation?

Tracy: This is something that I really live and breathe. I was first diagnosed when I was 38, and I have to tell you it was a complete shock. I had only ever seen old people being diagnosed. I remember that first time so well. After the appointment, the doctor called to give me the results and she said, “I have good news.” However, when she proceeded to say “you have melanoma,”  I remember asking how that could possibly be good news. She went on to tell me that it was caught much earlier than expected, so that was the part that was good news. I’ll admit that I did feel sorry for myself for about a day. But then, I realized that life does go on and I had to keep going. So, after that first diagnosis, my checkups then became more frequent. And then, a year later I was diagnosed with melanoma a second time, and 2 months later a third time. And in between, I’d had a lot of surgeries for removal of pre-melanoma – about 120 stitches in all.

Tracy’s First Melanoma Diagnosis

During that first year, I’d met a lot of people as a result of my melanoma diagnosis. But no one really talked about it. So, I felt the best thing for me personally was to start a blog. It helped me to just get it out and to share my story. There’s actually a really cute story about how the name of the blog, Polka Dot Mama, came to be. My younger son had written an essay for school about his special mother who is polka dotted with moles. I remember his teacher contacting me about it and thinking what a humbling moment that was. But, he was right. This IS what makes me special. I had been so insecure about my moles as a teenager. And, here he was writing about me and calling me special. So, in starting a blog, I had been given an opportunity to talk about this. I found myself truly writing from my heart. And, I found that people really started to respond to what I was saying. Through my interactions with followers of my blog, I soon got this idea to host this farm to table gala. I wanted to do something to raise money for melanoma research. And, I decided that the proceeds would go to the Melanoma Research Alliance. In working with the Alliance, someone there suggested that I should start a non-profit. So after some discussion about how to run a non-profit and about every other aspect of my life that would be affected by this decision, I applied for non-profit status in July of 2015 and then I received it in September of that year. Our first event as the new Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation was on May 1, 2016 and we raised over $100,000. Again, remember that our initial intent was to fund research. However, I pretty quickly found that the community was really responding to us in ways I had not anticipated. So that gave me something to consider.From Research to OutreachWell, one thing led to another and we soon realized that there is something more to it than just raising fundraising. Our impact was turning into something much more – we became this voice in a community that needed education about melanoma. We soon realized our impact was going to be on early detection and education. We started to grow and evolve and doing more community events. Through our community events, we provided support and education in a way that isn’t preachy, and I really think that’s what helped people the most. 

What Gets You Excited About Your Mission?

Sue: It really takes a special person to get up every morning and say, “Here I am, I’m going to go out and advocate for as long as it takes and to reach as many people as I can.” What is it about the Polka Dot Mama mission that energizes you every day?

Tracy: The biggest is this community collaboration that I have experienced. People want to do good. They just need to be given the opportunity to do good. I have found that our local community has really come together. What’s great is that we are being included. And, honestly, I am constantly amazed at the incredible people we meet. All are affected somehow, in some way. But it’s not just local people. I also love being able to meet people online from all over the world. They will reach out and tell a story, and every time I hear of someone’s story, I am reminded that I have this opportunity to fight for these people – people with melanoma who are going through treatment and don’t look like they have cancer. The treatment of choice for melanoma is immunotherapy. It ramps up your immune system but you don’t lose hair or weight. Actually, at our Gala, we always have a table of survivors and I can guarantee no one can tell that these people either are going through treatment or have recently completed treatment.  

The Shade Shuttle

Sue: I’d love to hear about the Shade Shuttle.  I just think it is the coolest thing around.  I’ve seen pictures and videos, but how was the Shade Shuttle born, what do you do with it now, and what do you foresee for its future?

Tracy: We’ve been doing work with the Melanoma Action Coalition to spread awareness and get the word out. We often share fundraising ideas and were recently tossing some ideas around and one of our partners there mentioned that he was using a school bus. Well, light bulbs went off in my head and I just happened to ask him how I would go about getting a school bus. He got on the phone and 10 minutes later he had a bus donated to us! Cool, right?

So, right now it’s basically just a rolling billboard for us since it has not yet been renovated. Right now, we do screenings at clinics through incredible, board-certified dermatologists. These clinics are provided through the American Academy of Dermatology. I’m not sure how best to say this but we have found that 20-25% of those who come to our screenings are diagnosed with some kind of skin cancer. In a way, it’s a blessing that we provide this service because some of these people who have had a form of skin cancer identified through our services, might not have found out in time and then the prognosis would not be as good. So far, we have screened over 100 people. And, as I said before, 20-25% of them have been diagnosed with some kind of skin cancer. So, I know we are providing a wonderful, and so much needed, service. We’re getting the word out and helping people through early detection. Eventually, the bus itself will be converted. The back will be converted into an exam room, while the front will be a waiting room. Or, when not being used as a clinic, the front will be a mobile classroom. We have grand plans for it. We will provide various services and screenings. Right now, we bring it to businesses that have a clinic on site. It’s really the first of its kind in the area, and we are so proud that we will be able to provide this to the community. We are now at a point where we have some wonderful interns working with us, so we are able to increase the number of events that we participate in. It’s really exploded and I can’t be more proud of what we do.

Sue: You do so much within the community to both raise awareness and provide tools and resources. Can you tell me about some more about your community outreach?

Tracy: In addition to everything that we do already, including the Shade Shuttle which will eventually be our most visible source of outreach, I’m proud that we have something new in the works…It’s a campaign called “Melanoma Does Not Discriminate.” Basically, if you have skin, you can get melanoma. While African Americans only account for 1%-2% diagnosed annually, what’s troubling is that so many are misdiagnosed. Another interesting fact is that African Americans will get melanoma in atypical places like the soles of the feet or palms of the hands. Actually, 54% of people of color won’t survive more than 5 years after diagnosis. That’s primarily because many are not caught early. If caught early there is a 98% chance of survival, whereas if caught late, there is only a 37% survival rate. We want to get the word out that anyone can get melanoma. Like I said before, if you have skin, you can get melanoma.

Sue: Now, I know it takes funding to do all that you do. And, I do know that you have some wonderful fundraising events. Would you share some information about these events?

Tracy: Our biggest fundraiser is the gala. We also do smaller community events, they don’t generate funds as much, but what’s wonderful is that they seem to bring us new volunteers. They also help us to get the word out.

Sue: How do you come up with ideas for new events?

Tracy: They just happen. What’s great is that every time we have a new community event, it seems that another event comes from it. We recently had a chili cookoff to put sunscreen dispensers in firehouses. That event took place at Fortnight Brewing. Soon after that, the owner of Fortnight came to me and offered to brew a beer called Made In The Shade, with the proceeds going to Polka Dot Mama. Isn’t that an awesome name? We are so blessed to have such wonderful support. So, just like the bus, it just happened – it wasn’t really planned, it just happened. Then, the chef who won the chili cookoff in the Fall came to me with an idea for a hummus cookoff. These ideas just evolve. And, what’s great is that they are all the perfect fit.So, as I said before, things just happen – like the upcoming “Spot It” Firefighter Calendar Event which we are all very much looking forward to. With a calendar, Polka Dot Mama and melanoma awareness can be top of mind anytime someone looks at one of those calendars – well, maybe not the first thing people think of, given that we will have some of the area’s wonderful firefighters in the calendar, but maybe we’ll be the second thought. 🙂

Sue: Yes, I am planning on attending the “Spot It” Firefighter Calendar Event. I’m very much looking forward to that. *smiles*

Some Facts About Melanoma

Sue: You mentioned that, at the Gala, you will have a table of survivors and that people would not necessarily realize that they are melanoma survivors. Can you tell me a little more about melanoma? I’m sure there is so much that is unknown about this type of cancer.

Tracy: I will say right now that melanoma is not a sexy disease, which is probably why it’s not discussed nearly as much as it should be. However, what’s interesting and relevant is that in 2016, skin cancer was actually declared by the Surgeon General to be an epidemic. Did you know that 1 in 5 people will develop some form of skin cancer, and 1 in 50 will get melanoma?And, here are some startling statistics. In 1930, 1 in 5000 were diagnosed with melanoma. Compare that with the fact that in 2012, 1 in 50 were diagnosed with melanoma. 

Sue: What is the reason for such an increase in melanoma cases?

Tracy: In the 1930s, people were dressed very differently than today. They were more covered in general. Also, it used to be that if you were tanned, you were assumed to be low socioeconomic, so being tanned was not as desirable. Then, as time went on, it became more of a sign of prestige – that you had money. There was a healthy glow that came with it, it was a sign of a higher class of lifestyle. Then came the tanning beds. Did you know that just one time in a tanning bed and you are 75% more likely to develop melanoma? And tanning beds are available everywhere now, which is really scary.

[Check out this Melanoma Fact Sheet containing more data about melanoma.]

Well, I’d like to thank you, Tracy, for taking the time to meet with me. You are a true inspiration. As mentioned before, I love that you have looked melanoma in the face and said “Take that!” You aren’t just a survivor, you are truly a thriver, and I’m honored to know you and call you friend.

In Closing

I have to say that the more I learn about Tracy, the more inspired I am by her – and really by anyone who faces a challenge like hers head-on and chooses to live life with the gusto that ultimately will turn them not only into survivors but into true thrivers. I will say that I believe 100% that attitude plays a huge role in the quality of life that we are able to live. And, that is so very true for anyone who faces anything that can be considered life-threatening. So, keep a positive outlook on life. 🙂

Melanoma Awareness – Please watch and learn

I encourage you to check out this additional video, included here with permission from Tracy. The month of May might be Melanoma Awareness Month but Melanoma can affect anyone, at any time. Both awareness and advocacy need to be at the forefront year round. So, please watch and share this information with friends and family. 

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