After overcoming melanoma at age 18, Karolina Jasko went on to win Miss Illinois USA and find her purpose.
Karolina Jasko just arrived from class. Her hair is polished, her fresh face is flawless, and her nails—all but one—are done perfectly. This former Miss Illinois 2018 is a senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is finishing her undergraduate degree in psychology and preparing for graduate school interviews to study family and marriage counseling. She’s soft spoken and modest—qualities that may not fit the typical beauty queen stereotype—but when you ask her what’s motivating her, Jasko has a lot to say.
While beauty queens always seem to come across as aesthetically perfect and confident, Jasko has a message to share with everyone: “We all have scars.” There is something else Jasko has recently allowed herself to open up about: her experience with cancer. After Jasko hung up her crown at the end of 2018, she began sharing her story as a survivor of melanoma.
“It was easier for me to talk about domestic violence while I was competing for Miss Illinois USA because I care for it and it interests me,” Jasko says. “But since cancer touched me so personally, I had a harder time talking about it. And it wasn’t until after the pageant and my title expired that I realized people actually want to hear about it.”
On January 23, 2017—Jasko’s 18th birthday—her mom received a call from a dermatologist with results for a biopsy they conducted on Jasko’s thumb. She had developed a black line under the nail bed that ran vertically from her cuticle to the middle of her thumb. A nail tech discovered the anomaly during Jasko’s routine biweekly appointment where she typically got acrylic nails often topped with a gel polish and cured with a UV light source, which is known to cause skin cancer, according to the Harvard Medical School.
When Jasko showed her primary care doctor her thumb, he said, “Not to scare you, but that black line could be a sign of melanoma.” Her doctor urgently referred her to a dermatologist who told her she needed a biopsy done immediately.
“I’ll never forget the day of the biopsy,” Jasko recalls. “I was in the office, and there were six to eight residents in the room with us, too. Everyone was trying to look at my fingernail because the type of melanoma they thought I had is so rare—especially in someone so young. I was overwhelmed, and I was frustrated because I didn’t understand why this was happening to me. I remember crying that day.”
Jasko’s mom took the call. The biopsy revealed Jasko had subungual melanoma, a form of melanoma that grows in the nail bed tissues.
“I was definitely scared,” Jasko says. “But my mom was very upset and overwhelmed because she had melanoma, and the last thing she wanted was for me to ever have to go through it. She started crying, and I knew that I couldn’t let myself get like that because it would make it worse for her.”
Melanoma runs in her family. Jasko was very young when her mom was first diagnosed with melanoma, and her mother’s second stint with the cancer came while she was pregnant with Jasko’s younger brother. Jasko always knew she had a greater risk of developing melanoma because of her family history. But could the UV-light source used on Jasko’s nails be the culprit behind her diagnosis? She’ll never know.
“The thing is, my doctors never ever told me that I got this form of melanoma from getting my nails done,” Jasko says. “I probably would’ve gotten it regardless down the line because of the genetic factors that affect me.”
Instead of celebrating her 18th birthday, Jasko’s priority was figuring out how and when they could remove the melanoma from her body.
She had surgery three times. The first was the most invasive: an oncologist, dermatologist and hand surgeon worked together to extract the melanoma from her nail bed. The next surgery aimed to remove her nail to make sure the cancer never came back in that area. However, Jasko’s nail kept growing back, so she needed a third and final surgery, which prevented the nail from growing back. She also underwent four physical therapy sessions to work on gaining full function in her thumb. Now, Jasko has a checkup appointment every six months.
While traumatic for Jasko and her family, her initial brush with cancer—a little more than a year including the diagnosis and surgeries—was brief, she says. But what stuck with her were the insecurities she developed around having a thumb that looked different than most.
“When I got my melanoma diagnosis and then all of those surgeries, it sounds bad to say, but something that affected me the most was the fact that my thumb nail was never going to grow back,” Jasko says. “Being 18 and in high school, I was about [to] go to prom and I remember caring so much about people noticing. I built up this narrative in my head that something was wrong with me. My thumb is not that noticeable. But to me, it was the only thing that I noticed. I tore [myself] down constantly, and I used to wear bandages even after my thumb healed.”
As Jasko recovered and got used to her new normal, she was introduced to the world of pageantry. A family friend of Jasko’s created a Polish pageant organization and during their first year, they needed more girls to attend the casting call. Jasko didn’t really want to do it, but her mom thought it would help boost her confidence.
Not only was Jasko selected to compete, she ended up winning the Miss Polonia title.
“It was a whirlwind,” Jasko gushes. “The Polish organization started egging me on to run for Miss Illinois USA, and I was like, ‘You guys are crazy!’”
Still, Jasko chased the adrenaline rush she got from winning and propelled herself into the 2019 Miss Illinois USA pageant. “And I ended up winning,” she says with excitement, but also in disbelief.
Jasko’s mom was right. Competing in both pageants left Jasko with a stronger sense of self and opened her eyes to the experiences of other women who also encountered life challenges and insecurity.
“Becoming a pageant queen has made me feel more accepted,” Jasko says. “And I realized that everyone always expects pageant queens and models to be so perfect. You can’t always see visible scars, but everyone has been through their own hardships in life and no one is perfect.”
Walking across a stage in a swimsuit in front of thousands—as well as a live TV audience—can put a lot into perspective. And in Jasko’s experience, it was transformative.
“Girls are always searching for things that are wrong with them,” Jasko says. “I was so insecure about my thumb and my scars from having skin grafts taken from my groin, and when I realized I was going to be walking across the stage in a swimsuit, I knew I wanted to show the world that I’m not perfect, but that I am [a] beautiful, smart and confident person who also has scars.”
As a melanoma survivor and fulltime student, Jasko says she takes her cancer wellness seriously, while also enjoying life. She has regular appointments with her dermatologist, and she also gets a full body mole scan once a year. She recommends this for everyone, whether they have a family history of cancer or not.
“We live in a world where everyone is so stressed and tense with work,” Jasko says. “And I think it is really important to take time and do something that you enjoy. No matter what it is, if it’s reading a book, going to the gym or hanging out with your dog, take an hour a day to fill your soul.”