Navy Veteran Ashlynn Soellner's Melanoma Journey
By Renee Orcione, MRA Digital Engagement & Communications Manager | 8 November 2023 | Melanoma Stories, Prevention, Treatment
Pennsylvania native Ashlynn Soellner understood the importance of protecting her skin from a young age thanks to her mom’s insistence anytime she went outside. An accomplished soccer player her entire life, she was always equipped with sunscreen to protect her fair skin. Excitingly, Ashlynn’s talents on the soccer field took her to new heights when she accepted a scholarship to play for the US Naval Academy and earn her degree.
Ashlynn graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Oceanography from the Naval Academy in 2014 and then began her active-duty career in the U.S. Navy where she was stationed in Jacksonville, Florida. Shortly after arriving at her duty station, she was deployed on a ship for eight months to the waters of the Persian Gulf.
Ashlynn served for five years before retiring from the service. Today, the thirty-two-year-old still resides in Jacksonville where she works as an Operations Manager for Amazon.
New Moles and First Signs of Concern
Shortly after her active-duty career came to an end, Ashlynn began noticing new moles on her body. “I looked back on pictures from just a few years earlier and I had barely any moles,” she said. “It was like they appeared out of nowhere – and a lot of them were changing rapidly.” Ashlynn’s mom noticed too and urged her daughter to see a dermatologist.
Ashlynn had her first appointment with a dermatologist in December 2021 to evaluate the new and changing moles on her body. At the appointment, her doctor flagged a lesion on her shoulder and took a biopsy. Often the first sign of melanoma is a change in the shape, color, size, or feel of an existing mole. However, melanoma may also appear as an entirely new mole or a rapidly enlarging bump.
Just a couple weeks after her biopsy, Ashlynn received an official diagnosis: the lesion on her shoulder was melanoma. “You never think cancer will happen to you, especially when you are young. I was in complete shock,” said Ashlynn.
The unfortunate reality is that melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults – especially young women.
Increased Risk of Melanoma in Military Personnel and Veterans
What Ashlynn also did not know, is that as a veteran she is part of a population known to be at higher risk for melanoma. U.S. veterans are not only at higher risk for developing melanoma than the general population but are also more likely to have advanced-stage disease when it's detected, according to recent research.
There is evidence to suggest that military service, particularly in certain branches and occupations, is associated with an increased risk of melanoma and other skin cancers. Sun exposure and lack of protection from UV rays, potential exposure to carcinogens and other chemicals, and overall demographics of the veteran population may play a role in this increased risk.
To help answer some of these unknowns, the Melanoma Research Alliance is part of a groundbreaking retrospective study across the national VA system examining melanoma cases in veterans over the last 20 years, including rare mucosal, acral and uveal subtypes of melanoma.
"Primary care providers and dermatologists who care for veterans, as well as veterans themselves, should be aware of the elevated advanced melanoma risk in this population," said Dr. Rebecca Hartman, an associate chief of dermatology with the VA Boston Healthcare System.1
Developing a Treatment Plan and Dealing with a Recurrence
Ashlynn underwent surgery to remove and treat the melanoma on her shoulder. The lesion was removed by a Wide Local Excision (WLE), which achieved clear margins. At that point, her melanoma was confirmed as Stage 1, and beyond the successful surgery, the next steps included follow-up dermatology visits every three months.
It was at Ashlynn’s very first follow-up appointment three months later when alarm bells went off. Her doctor identified six lesions that had changed since the last appointment and took biopsies of each. Ashlynn’s worst nightmare came true when a lesion on her chest came back as melanoma.
This time, the melanoma was a bit larger than the previous one on her shoulder. Ashlynn underwent yet another Wide Local Excision, followed by a Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy (SLNB) to determine the official staging. Unfortunately, some lymph nodes came back positive for melanoma, meaning her diagnosis was Stage 3C and required additional treatment beyond surgery.
“At first, I was scared,” remembered Ashlynn. “I did some research online and learned about just how deadly melanoma can be. But I’ve never been the type to shy away from a challenge. I was not going to let this defeat me.”
Following surgery, Ashlynn began an immunotherapy regimen – receiving Keytruda (pembrolizumab) infusions every three weeks. She completed ten infusions before needing to stop treatment in December 2022 when she developed hypothyroidism as a side effect, which she is still managing today.
Thankfully, scans confirmed that Ashlynn was officially No Evidence of Disease (NED) at the time of ending treatment.
Finding Community During a Melanoma Journey
Throughout her years-long soccer career and time in the service, Ashlynn was no stranger to the importance of community. The same can be said about her journey with melanoma, whether she was leaning on existing relationships or forging new ones.
“Tapping into the melanoma community has been wonderful,” said Ashlynn. “You quickly realize that you aren’t alone and that people can be there for you even if they aren’t physically there with you.” This support has been important for Ashlynn as she faced many hurdles since retiring from the Navy – including over thirty biopsies resulting in six Stage 1 and one Stage 3 melanoma diagnoses, countless scars, and lasting side effects from immunotherapy treatment.
Today, she visits her doctors four times a year for skin exams and twice a year for scans to monitor for any signs of recurrence. “I have so many moles that my skin check appointments can take hours,” remarked Ashlynn. “My dermatologist goes inch by inch while examining my skin. You have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” Learn more about who should get a full-body skin exam and what to expect.
While the many appointments come with their challenges, like “scanxiety” – the anxiety associated with cancer-related scans – Ashlynn chooses to focus on the positive. She has not needed any biopsies in 2023 and December marks a year since completing immunotherapy and being declared No Evidence of Disease – both things she recognizes and celebrates.
“Staying positive and keeping busy makes a world of difference when you are dealing with melanoma,” said Ashlynn. “I thank my parents for raising me to have a positive outlook regardless of what life throws at you.”