After a scary experience with melanoma, Ariana Madix is using her platform to make a change. She wants you to know that getting a skin exam could save your life — just like it may have saved hers.
Ariana Madix is an actress and author. She interacts with more than 2 million followers on Instagram, attends book signings and red carpet events and makes plenty of talk show appearances, all between the time she spends starring on the Bravo reality television series “Vanderpump Rules.” That’s enough to keep anyone busy, but in October 2018, Madix added another title to her packed resume —healthy skin advocate. Her experience with melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer, has led her to urge others to pay attention to their bodies and trust their instincts.
Ariana has shared Refinery29 and The Skin Cancer Foundation’s petition to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to enforce rules against cancer-causing tanning beds. Please join us by signing this letter to the FDA.
An Overlooked Danger
Madix had always had moles on her body, and explains that for the most part, she never really thought anything of them. But one spot, a mole on her chest that seemed particularly dark, turned out to be something worth paying attention to.
“I had noticed it a handful of years before getting to the doctor,” Madix says. “Then I sometimes got DMs from fans saying that they had noticed it, or that they were a dermatologist and it worried them. When I finally got health insurance and could afford it, I went to the dermatologist and asked about it.”
Madix’s doctor didn’t like the look of the spot and suggested she have it removed. He explained that even if it was benign, it was atypical and could eventually become problematic.
“He sent me to a doctor he knew would be able to see me right then,” she recalls. “I drove over and the second doctor removed it that same afternoon and sent it off to be tested.”
When it was time to hear her results, Madix already had a feeling the news wasn’t good. Her doctor asked her to come into the office rather than telling her the results of the biopsy over the phone. When she got there, they gave her the news — the spot was a melanoma. One of the most serious forms of skin cancer, melanoma can spread to other organs more quickly than other common forms of the disease like basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).
Madix’s doctor felt they had caught her melanoma at a good time, as it was still in stage I. The estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 99 percent. The survival rate falls to 65 percent when the disease reaches the lymph nodes and 25 percent when the disease metastasizes to distant organs. “It was crazy, but I do feel like I got lucky with how slowly it had progressed,” Madix says. “It seemed like it had been on my body forever, but it wasn’t too thick yet.”
“Skin cancer can be so fast and aggressive. I was lucky and mine wasn’t moving very quickly, but I don’t want any of my friends or family to be in a position where they don’t get checked and then it’s too late.”
Her treatment was nothing to brush off, however. Madix’s doctor suggested an aggressive approach to removing the cancer, something she remembered being jarring. “It’s scary when a doctor says they want to be aggressive with treatment,” she says. “It freaked me out a little bit. They wanted to attack it. They didn’t say, ‘Oh, we’ll just do this and it’ll be fine.’”
Madix underwent surgery a couple weeks later, along with a sentinel lymph node biopsy in order to determine if the cancer cells had spread beyond the tumor site. Her doctor removed a relatively large patch of skin from her chest, making sure the margins were wide enough to catch all of the cancer cells. Madix recalls the first few days of her recovery as pretty painful and uncomfortable, with large bandages across her chest wound and in her armpit to catch drainage. After a few days, her doctor removed her bandages and she was left with stitches that would later dissolve.
“Some of them started coming out and I remember thinking, OK, I guess I’m a doctor now, pulling out these stitches,” Madix says, laughing. “After that it was pretty easy. I still have a sizeable, noticeable scar, but it’s definitely a lot better than it was.”
Madix underwent a full body scan with an oncologist after the surgery and was given the all clear. She has been cancer-free since her procedure and sees her dermatologist every six months for a skin exam.
A History of Tanning, Both Indoor and Out
While the majority of skin cancer patients are white men over the age of 55, anyone can be affected and certain behaviors — tanning chief among them — can increase a younger person’s risk of developing the disease. Madix grew up in Florida and moved to California, both places she says have cultures that promote tanning. She remembers people expressing surprise whenever she was without a tan, and even asking if she was sick.
“I would go to the tanning bed almost every day, and then sometimes in the same day go to the beach and lay out,” she says of her time in Florida. “I’d use baby oil and Coca-Cola. I was very, very tan.”
Madix’s doctor told her that her history of tanning likely contributed to her diagnosis. Today, she still opts for a bronzed look, but now she achieves it without exposing her skin to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
“Back then, there weren’t good alternatives to tanning beds. The spray tan options would turn people orange and then you get made fun of,” Madix says. “Now when I have to film something I’ll use a foam sunless tanner that I put on a mitt and rub in.”
She’s also careful to protect her skin from the sun while doing everyday activities. While she no longer goes to the beach much, Madix does enjoy gardening and horseback riding. “I’m always careful to put a really good sunscreen on my face, and I have SPF in all of my lotions,” she says. “You usually wear long sleeves and pants when you ride, so I’m pretty covered up too.”
Beyond making changes to her own life to protect her skin, Madix has found herself urging others to get their skin checked by a professional. She’s had success so far, having gotten both her mother and a costar to get to the dermatologist. Her boyfriend, who is fair and has many freckles, is next on her list.
“I’m that annoying friend now that’s like, ‘You really have to go get that looked at because that looks sketchy,’” she says, referring to any suspicious spots she sees on acquaintances. “Skin cancer can be so fast and aggressive. I was lucky and mine wasn’t moving very quickly, but I don’t want any of my friends or family to be in a position where they don’t get checked and then it’s too late.”
Her best advice to anyone who is worried about anything new, changing or just plain unusual on their skin? Trust your instincts.
“Doctors know what they’re talking about, but they’re not with you all the time,” Madix says. “It’s your body so you have to be in charge. Be an advocate for your own body. Push forward even if you want to believe it’s nothing.”