Marissa Dees, a 28-year-old mother from Tampa Bay, Florida, was born with a rare skin condition that causes dark skin and cancerous moles to develop all over her body.
For Dees, her congenital melanocytic nevus disorder left her with birthmarks “from [her] skull to above [her] buttocks and wrapped around [her] front and shoulders,” she tells The Sun.
The incredibly uncommon disease – affecting one in every 500,000 people – has forced Dees to undergo more than 30 operations over the years to get rid of the dark patches that put her at an extremely high risk for melanoma, the deadliest and most aggressive form of skin cancer.
“The birthmarks go under the skin, wrapping around the bones, muscle and tissues,” Dees said.
What is left behind after her painful surgeries are scars all over her body.
"I've gone from a back full of hairy black nevus and moles, to looking like a burns survivor with a back full of scars,” Dees said.
When Dees was younger, she was often bullied by classmates who called her “Dalmatian” or “part dog” because of the spots all over her skin, which made her want to hide her disease even more.
“As a child, I was embarrassed by how I looked and would always wear turtle necks even while playing sports and during summer,” she says to The Sun. “But now things have changed.”
After Dees' friend, Jennifer Androver, died in April of stage four melanoma triggered by the same skin disorder, Dees decided to stop hiding herself or her scars.
"It was the wake-up call I needed to embrace who I am and let other people know it's OK to have this condition and show your scars," she told The Sun.
The 28-year-old has been having surgeries since she was six-months old to remove the dark patches of skin – first treating the nevus with skin removal before moving on to skin expanders, which would stretch Dees’ skin over a “balloon type device filled with saline,” doctors would then cut out the nevus and then stretch the loose skin to cover the wound.
All of her procedures have led to severe nerve damage that gives her daily pain.
But through it all, Dees tries to stay positive, citing her fiancé as a reason behind her confidence. She also aims to become a spokesperson for Nevus Outreach and to promote awareness and bring acceptance to others who are suffering.
"I don't want to hide behind my nevus, I want to share and help others realize they shouldn't be afraid to show their skin,” she said.
Though she does continue to struggle with the disease and has to keep up her doctor’s appointments in case any of her moles change or dark skin appears, which has led her to start a fundraiser to help raise money for her treatments.
"I am taking all precautions I can to reduce my chances of cancer,” Dees said, “but this condition is real, rare and scary, the reality is tough as I've already lost my friend and seen a lot of children die too.”