Photograph by Nicole Hill Gerulat
For Witney Carson, the diagnosis came at the worst possible time — and on the worst possible spot for a dancer: her foot. Battling melanoma could have threatened her passion and even her life, but it only made her stronger.
By KENNETH MILLER
Witney Carson’s cell phone buzzed one afternoon in 2014, as her mother was driving her to a dance studio near their home in American Fork, Utah. It was destiny calling — or, more precisely, a producer from Dancing with the Stars, where the 20-year-old had served as a troupe member for the past two seasons. The voice on the speaker made an offer Witney had dreamed of since she was a little girl: “We’d like to promote you to a professional partner.”
Witney and her mom pulled into a parking lot, screamed and hugged each other. For a ballroom dancer, a pro slot on DWTS was a recognition of topflight talent and charisma, and one of the highest-profile gigs in the business. If she accepted, Witney would join the reality show’s elite squad of performer-choreographers, partnering with a celebrity competitor for the season. “It was the most amazing news I’d ever heard,” she recalls.
Except — there was a potentially serious obstacle: A few weeks earlier, a mole removed from Witney’s foot had tested positive for melanoma, one of the most dangerous forms of skin cancer. She was still waiting to find out if the disease had spread, and what treatment would be required. Rehearsals for the next season started in two months, and they would be grueling. Would she be in shape for the spotlight? Witney shoved the question to the back of her mind. “Awesome,” she told the woman on the phone. “I’ll be there.”
Born to Dance
From the day she learned to walk, Witney was a natural performer. “She was always trying to entertain in front of everybody, jumping around and making stuff up,” says her mother, Jill, who started her in dance class at age 3 to harness that energy. Soon, the pastime became her defining passion. At 12, Witney was watching a ballroom competition on TV when the revelation struck: This is what I have to do with my life. Impressed by her grace, athleticism and ferocious work ethic, her instructors agreed.
After school most weekdays, she took private lessons and practiced — ballroom, ballet, modern, hip-hop — until 8:30 p.m. Then she ate dinner and did homework, frequently past midnight. When she wasn’t traveling to dance competitions, Witney and her family had fun together camping, four-wheeling and water-skiing. On Sundays, there were services at the Mormon meetinghouse.
Some Fears and Doubts
Witney was 16 when cancer first threatened to detonate her world. It began with her father: After surgeons removed a melanoma from his leg, as well as several lymph nodes in his groin (which, luckily, tested negative), a CT scan revealed a shadow in his chest. That turned out to be an unrelated tumor: a lung carcinoma. Although it was excised successfully, the operation left him bedridden for weeks, and the episode traumatized his loved ones. “We honestly thought he was going to pass away,” Witney recalls.
Soon afterward, her mother, too, had a melanoma removed; this one was small and superficial, and required no further procedures. Concerned about this family history, Witney’s parents began making sure their kids had skin exams every six months. “About 50 percent of melanomas are thought to be from familial causes, and 50 percent from the sun,” the family’s dermatologist, Cheryl Lee Eberting, MD, explains. “If you have a first-degree relative who’s had melanoma, your risk of getting it is almost double.”
Meanwhile, Witney continued to sharpen her dance skills — but she also hedged her bets and applied to Utah Valley University. In the summer of 2012, as she prepared to start college, another possibility presented itself: the TV show So You Think You Can Dance announced tryouts in Salt Lake City. Her mother encouraged her to give it a shot, but Witney resisted, fearing a devastating failure. “The night before the audition,” she remembers, “my mom sat me down in her bedroom and said, ‘I really feel like you should do this. I don’t know what it is, but something tells me you need to go.’” Reluctantly, Witney called her frequent dance partner, and the two of them threw together a routine.
Going for It
The next day, at the Salt Palace, her sizzling cha-cha tango — in which she slinked, strutted, wrapped herself around her companion from many angles and flew upside-down above his head — earned a standing ovation not only from the audience but from the judges. Witney made it through several more days of auditions and onto the show, where she gained a rabid fan base and finished the competition as second ladies’ runner-up. She put her college plans on hold to go on tour with her fellow contestants, then landed the lead role in a spinoff film, Dancin’: It’s On! By then, she’d caught the eye of Dancing with the Stars. She debuted as a troupe member in March 2013.
For Witney, DWTS wasn’t just the most popular dance show on television; it was the embodiment of everything she’d spent half her young lifetime striving to achieve. She had watched the program devotedly since its first season, in 2005. She wanted a chance at becoming a champion herself. So she kept working to up her game, intent on proving she possessed the rare blend of skill, stamina and dazzle required of a star.
She was home on hiatus after her second season when her mother noticed the mole on top of Witney’s left foot, near the toes. It was strawberry-colored, a quarter-inch wide, and it seemed to be new. “My mom said, ‘That looks a little concerning. We should take you in to see the dermatologist,’” Witney recalls. “I was like, ‘OK. I’m sure it’s going to be fine.’” It turned out to be anything but.
Bad News and Bad Timing
When the producer called offering to promote her, Witney was still hoping that her melanoma could be removed with little fuss, like her mother’s. But a few days later, when she and her parents met with a surgical oncologist at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, she learned that her case was more complex. Like her father’s cancer, Witney’s was rooted inside an unusual type of mole called an atypical Spitzoid nevus. Surgeons would need to excise an inch of tissue around the mole. To check whether the malignancy had spread, they would biopsy two lymph nodes in her hip as well.
Frantic, Witney explained her dilemma to the doctor. “I can’t have surgery right now,” she insisted. “Can’t we just wait?” If she did, he told her, the melanoma could advance and she might need even more debilitating treatment. And because melanoma is notoriously aggressive, she would be risking her life. “I don’t think you can go on the show this season,” he said. “You have to take care of this immediately.”
Her doctor was right; timing is crucial in melanoma treatment. While she told no one on the show, Witney had surgery on her foot in February 2014, just a few weeks before rehearsals were to begin. It was a success. Her lymph nodes showed no errant cells; her melanoma had been caught at stage IA, when long-term survival rates are excellent. The recovery period, however, was “the most devastating, depressing three weeks of my entire life,” she recalls. To heal properly, her foot had to be kept immobile and elevated 20 hours a day. She spent most of that time in bed — helpless, restless and furious. “When you’re a dancer, your body means everything,” she says. “I felt like mine had betrayed me.”
Witney was angry at herself, too, for a habit she’d picked up in high school: visiting a tanning salon three times a week. Although her genetic inheritance increased the likelihood that she would get melanoma eventually, the ultraviolet (UV) rays in tanning beds (like those from the sun) can speed up the process. Like many tanning devotees, she’d been only dimly aware of the danger — and like most teens, she’d considered herself invincible. “Despite my parents’ brushes with skin cancer, I’d never thought it would happen to me,” she says.
What made her situation even harder to bear was the need to keep it secret. If word of her illness got out, she thought, her dance career would be kaput. So she confided in no one outside her family except for her high school sweetheart, Carson McAllister, who was on a mission trip to Romania. In her anguish, she sometimes lashed out at her parents. “I feel bad about that to this day,” she says. But their steadfast care helped keep her hopeful (as did her journaling and prayer, plus inspirational emails and videos from McAllister).
Four weeks after the surgery, when it was time to return to L.A. for rehearsals, Witney saw the surgeon for a final checkup. “You’re not ready to dance,” he told her. She pretended to agree.
Getting Back on Her Feet
Back on the set of Dancing with the Stars, Witney remained mum about her medical issues. On her first day of practice, she gave it her all, as she always had. At some point, she wondered why her left foot was so damp; looking down, she saw that her white sneaker was drenched in blood. Limping to the bathroom, she found that her stitches had completely ripped open.
Witney’s parents, who’d accompanied her to Los Angeles, found a wound-care specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Kazu Suzuki, DPM, who specialized in getting injured athletes back into competition. Worried about the risk of infection, he initially tried to talk her into quitting. “She wasn’t interested,” he recalls with a laugh. “When I saw her determination, I wanted to help make her dream happen.” Every two days for several weeks, Dr. Suzuki cleaned out the wound using surgical tools and ultrasound, covered it with antibiotic dressing and wrapped it in a new bandage. Witney kept dancing.
In her first season with a celeb partner, she was paired with singer Cody Simpson; they finished ninth, but the experience helped her find her footing. In Witney’s second season, her partner was Alfonso Ribeiro, who’d costarred on the ’90s hit The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — an experienced dancer whose trademark move, “The Carlton” (set to Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual”), had been a highlight of that show. “We immediately became super-close, like brother and sister,” Witney says. “We were the perfect team. And I had so much bottled-up frustration that it motivated me to go above and beyond.” After practice each day, she stayed in the studio for hours, choreographing sequences and refining routines.
Over the 12-week marathon, the duo delivered blazing performances in every genre, from salsa to freestyle, even working the “Carlton” into a number built around a shy couple watching movies on a sofa. They survived each elimination round. And on November 25, 2014 — nine months after Witney’s melanoma surgery — they waited for judgment with the other remaining couple, anxiety etched on all four faces. When host Tom Bergeron shouted “Alfonso and Witney!” they hugged for a long moment. Then Bergeron handed them their mirror-ball trophies, and the crowd hoisted the champions into the air.
It’s been nearly five years since the victory that made Witney a household name. She’s still dancing on DWTS, but in other ways, her life has changed profoundly. For one thing, she and McAllister are married now; they tied the knot on New Year’s Day 2016. After living in L.A. for a stretch, the couple decided that city wasn’t for them. Last year, they bought a two-story fixer-upper near the town where they both grew up, with views of the mountains from every window.
Witney met our reporter there one Saturday this spring, when snow still covered the slopes. She was wearing a crisp white pantsuit and flats, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. (Her non-glittery everyday style, she says, is best represented by her new athletic clothing line, Capri, which is her middle name.) After telling her story in a small sitting room, she offered a tour of the house, with her Cavalier-Bichon mix, Roxy, trotting at her heels. The place was bright and airy, and the most striking objet was a sofa as long as a school bus, chosen for its ability to hold large numbers of relatives. She pointed out the deck where she sometimes does yoga, overlooking a meadow frequented by deer and foxes. She mentioned that she and her guy (who’s studying to be a mechanical engineer) were thinking about having a baby or two before too long.
In a sense, Witney’s path has come full-circle. But she has also traveled an enormous distance — a voyage for which the scar on her foot serves as a kind of map. At first, she was embarrassed by the J-shaped mark. “I thought it was ugly and disgusting,” she says. “It reminded me of the most terrible time of my life.” Eventually, though, she began to see it differently. About a year after winning the championship, she came out as a cancer survivor on the talk show The Doctors. She made her first donations to The Skin Cancer Foundation, collected as fines from her then-partner on DWTS, NFL star Von Miller, whenever he swore or passed gas (which, they joked, was a frequent occurrence). She started paying morale-boosting visits to patients through the American Cancer Society and speaking out in the media on the perils of tanning beds. And she stopped trying to hide the evidence of her ordeal.
“What I went through helped me become a better dancer and a better person,” she says. “I’m proud of this scar now. It was a catalyst for everything that came afterwards.”
Kenneth Miller is a journalist based in LA. A contributing editor at Discover, he writes on science, medicine and other topics for a wide range of publications.