A realtor from Alabama has thanked a viral TikTok beauty trend for saving her life — after it led to the discovery of stage four cancer.
Helen Bender, from Mobile, had been following the ‘Gua Sha’ trend, a 2,000-year-old technique from China which involves scraping the skin with a flat tool until tiny red dots appear.
But while she was doing this in April 2022, the 26-year-old spotted a large lump lurking under her skin just below the left side of her jaw.
Scans at the doctor revealed it was the most aggressive type of cancer and had already led to 20 tumors throughout her body. She was given just six weeks to live.
But after starting immunotherapy, the tumors have begun to shrink – and she is eight months into a two-year course.
Her remarkable story comes after a 25-year-old TikTok star also credited the social media platform with saving his life after viewers raised the alarm over a cancerous mole on his back.
Helen Bender, 26, from Mobile, Alabama, said the viral TikTok hack Gua Sha saved her life. It led to her being diagnosed with stage four skin cancer and receiving treatment
The 26-year-old said she was trying Gua Sha on her face when she spotted a lump on her neck. She got this checked by doctors, only to discover that it was stage four skin cancer
Ms Bender said: ‘Using Gua Sha saved my life.
‘I’d started to use it to try and make my face skinnier when I noticed this bump, I wasn’t sure what it was.
‘I get sick a lot with colds and stuff, so I thought at first it was just a swollen lymph node.
‘Then I noticed I’d lost a lot of weight. I was loving it thinking “I’m so skinny”, not realizing it was cancer.’
She added: ‘If I hadn’t used [Gua Sha] so early on, I’d probably have… not managed to get it looked at. I could have died.’
Gua Sha videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok, after the practice was highlighted last year by celebrities including supermodel Elle Macpherson.
Supporters of the facial massage say it improves circulation and can help to drain fluid, which they claim improves wrinkles and can make a user’s face appear thinner.
Doctors say it could be helpful for reducing swelling and boosting circulation to areas where it is applied, helping to encourage cell growth.
But they also warn that it bursts tiny blood vessels — called capillaries — beneath the skin, which may lead to bruising.
She is shown above doing Gua Sha. In this hack, users gently scrape their skin with a smooth object such as a coin or the back of a spoon until tiny red dots appear. Adherents say it can help battle off wrinkles and make your face look thinner, but doctors warn it also bursts blood vessels beneath the skin
After her initial appointment with doctors, she went on holiday to Italy with her family for ten days. She didn’t mention the potential diagnosis, but while away she noticed another lump on her clavicle (Shown above is the lump on her clavicle/shoulder, mid-left, and on her neck, top right)
Alarm bells started ringing shortly after Ms Bender first noticed the lump in April 2022, prompting her to book a visit to the doctor.
She had previously been diagnosed with melanoma five years ago, but the cancerous mole on her back had been removed and she had been in remission ever since.
Doctors had told her to get checked every year in case the cancer came back, but Ms Bender said she had missed her latest appointment by a few weeks.
She booked to see a dermatologist in April for a lung X-ray. She had a follow-up scan booked for early May for just after a ten-day family trip to Italy.
While there, she spotted another lump on her shoulder, which left her feeling like ‘something was going wrong’.
The day after the trip, she went for a full body scan but was called back to the clinic by doctors within an hour of leaving.
Ms Bender said: ‘I was running errands and they told me to come in immediately, that it was urgent.
‘I went by myself and called my fiancé to stay by his phone.
‘The doctor came in and he sat down and said, “This is stage four cancer”. I remember having a blank stare on my face, it was such a blur.
‘There were around 20 lumps, it had spread throughout my body to multiple areas. It actually says on my records it’s possibly stage five.’
She added: ‘I asked my doctor how long he thought I would have, and he said someone had come to him at a similar stage and they died in six weeks.’
Stage four melanoma is the most aggressive type, and indicates that it has already spread to other locations in the body.
Scans indicated that as well as the lump on her neck, she also had tumors in her lungs, intestines, and left thigh among other areas.
She said: ‘I had my fiancé come and meet me at the doctor’s office, we were both crying.
‘I couldn’t tell my dad, it’s so hard to tell that kind of news to family members. So the doctor told my dad, and my dad told my mum and sister.
‘They just hugged me and told me we were going to get through this. It was really hard seeing them, especially my sister.’
Ms Bender is now receiving immunotherapy to fight the cancer. She is in her eighth month of the two-year treatment. She is shown above with her cat and while traveling
Ms Bender is shown above while in hospital. A GoFundMe has been started in her name online which has already raised more than $100,000
Ms Bender is shown above in hospital while receiving treatment for her stage four skin cancer
Pictured above are two more views of the lump underneath her left jawline, which she spotted in April 2022. Scans the following month identified 20 other tumors across her body and doctors gave her six weeks to live
Doctors began her on a two-year course of immunotherapy at the Mitchell Cancer Institute in Mobile, Alabama, in early June.
The medicine initially caused the tumors to balloon so much that strangers in the street stopped her and said they would pray for her.
Eight months later the swelling has gone down and her tumors are no longer painful. Ms Bender says she now also feels positive about the future and that the treatment appears to be working.
What is TikTok hack ‘Gua Sha’?
Gua Sha is a type of massage popularized by Chinese medicine.
In the massage, users gently scrape an area of skin — typically on the face — with a smooth-edged tool such as a coin, spoon, or pebble.
They continue until tiny red spots appear under the skin.
Adherrents claim the practice improves their circulation, and can help reduce wrinkles and make your face look ‘thinner’.
But doctors warn the practice bursts blood vessels under the skin.
They say this can lead to bruising and minor bleeds.
She said: ‘We knew immunotherapy was the only option.
‘There’s a 50/50 chance if it works for you or not and if it doesn’t then it’s basically a death sentence.
‘I said, “Just let me know when I need to go enjoy my life on a beach,” you know?
‘The medicine enlarged the tumors even more as they swell before they get better, so they got crazy big.
‘It was pretty painful. On my jaw, the lump was pressing on a nerve and it got difficult to swallow.
‘I had a really big tumor in my left thigh, about the size of my fist, it grew so huge that my muscles would ache so badly.
‘I couldn’t go to the restroom for so long as some were in my intestines [and] it was causing internal problems.
‘It was hard seeing myself in the mirror as the lump on my jaw would remind me I could die, it made it hard to forget.
‘People would even stop me at the grocery store and pray for me.’
Speaking about her treatment eight months in, she added: ‘The lump isn’t as noticeable now, as I don’t have a visual on my body, I can put it out of my mind more.
‘I still have a lot of tumors, but you’d probably have no idea looking at me. I’ve been having the treatment for about seven months and so far it’s working.
Ms Bender initially told her fiance Alec Bailey (pictured) about the diagnosis, but told him not to tell her family. It was left to her doctor to inform relatives
Shown above from left to right: her fiance Alec Bailey, Ms Bender, and Ms Bender’s mother and father
‘Immunotherapy takes about two years and builds up your immune system so your body can fight the cancer itself.
‘When I go for treatment, it’ll wipe me out for the day, but the rest of the week I’m able to work and hang out with my friends.
‘I have another year-and-a-half of medicine, and they’re predicting I’ll go into remission in under two years.
‘It’s working really well. It doesn’t have the same effects that chemotherapy does, so I have a pretty good quality of life.
‘The one thing now that I always want to tell people is to go to your appointments.’
A fundraiser has been set up on GoFundMe in her name to help cover medical bills and lost earnings, which has so far raised more than $100,000.
Melanoma: The most dangerous form of skin cancer
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. It happens after the DNA in skin cells is damaged (typically due to harmful UV rays) and then not repaired so it triggers mutations that can form malignant tumours.
- Sun exposure: UV and UVB rays from the sun and tanning beds are harmful to the skin
- Moles: The more moles you have, the greater the risk for getting melanoma
- Skin type: Fairer skin has a higher risk for getting melanoma
- Hair colour: Red heads are more at risk than others
- Personal history: If you’ve had melanoma once, then you are more likely to get it again
- Family history: If previous relatives have been diagnosed, then that increases your risk
This can be done by removing the entire section of the tumor or by the surgeon removing the skin layer by layer. When a surgeon removes it layer by layer, this helps them figure out exactly where the cancer stops so they don’t have to remove more skin than is necessary.
The patient can decide to use a skin graft if the surgery has left behind discoloration or an indent.
- Immunotherapy, radiation treatment or chemotherapy:
This is needed if the cancer reaches stage III or IV. That means that the cancerous cells have spread to the lymph nodes or other organs in the body.
- Use sunscreen and do not burn
- Avoid tanning outside and in beds
- Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside
- Keep newborns out of the sun
- Examine your skin every month
- See your physician every year for a skin exam
Source: Skin Cancer Foundation and American Cancer Society