Eight-year-old Elijah Cree was born with an unusual birthmark on the top of his head and diagnosed with congenital melanocytic naevi — known as CMN.
The condition causes large, hairy birthmarks and an increased risk of skin cancer, and also means Elijah’s skin can be more fragile and prone to injury.
But the Liverpool FC supporter is proud of his “special skin” and has been talent-scouted by Glasgow Rangers Youth Academy.
Elijah from Carrickfergus dreams of following in the footsteps of Brazilian goalie Alisson Becker — even though the birthmark beneath his hair does make him more vulnerable to injury when heading the ball.
“He knows no fear,” laughs his mum Hannah (33). “He’s absolutely football mad. His dream is to play for Liverpool one day and he’s so determined.
“He trains four days a week and he’s playing with the Glasgow Rangers Youth Team alongside his commitments with Carrickfergus Rangers 2013 Team.”
Shortly after his birth in May 2014 his parents Hannah and Adam (31) noticed a large dark mark on the top of his head.
At first the midwives thought it was just bruising from the delivery, but the following day paediatric specialists decided it was a birthmark.
Hannah remembers: “It was about 12cm in diameter and covered the top of his head. It looked like a little cap that had slipped to one side.”
At ten months he was referred to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for an MRI scan to make sure the pigment hadn’t developed inside his brain too. In February 2015 he was diagnosed with CMN.
His parents were told he needed regular check-ups, and that his moles were likely to grow and spread. He also had an increased risk of developing skin cancer, neurological problems, or tumours in the brain or spine.
“It was a lot to take in,” Hannah admits. “CMN is rare; we were told that there were just five other known cases in Northern Ireland at the time. It’s caused by a genetic mutation of the NRAS gene.
“But as I started Googling and learning more about it, I realised there was no reason for Elijah not to lead a normal life. In fact I even found models and actors who had turned their unusual birthmarks to their advantage.
“His big sister Ari-Ela (9) even used to say that she wanted special skin too!”
The birthmark on his scalp causes Elijah’s hair to grow more thickly on that part of his head – but Hannah explains that’s nature’s way of protecting the vulnerable skin from sun damage.
When he first started school, some of the other children made comments about the fact that Elijah’s hair was different, and also has some grey streaks, so Hannah gave an assembly about CMN.
Now he has also developed vitiligo — which causes a loss of pigmentation and fairer skin —on parts of his face. And he currently has around 150 moles on his body.
“We don’t want him to be afraid of his condition, but as he grows older were are trying to educate him to be aware of it,” says Hannah. “For example, now he’s old enough to shower and wash his hair by himself, we have been teaching him to look out for any changes to his moles.
“He applies sun screen before school and before playing football — but the specialists at Great Ormond Street told us that all children should be wearing sun screen anyway. I always look for Factor 50 and check the UV level on the weather forecast each day.”
Hannah now works as a support pathway coordinator for Caring Matters Now — the UK’s only charity dedicated to supporting people affected by CMN. The organisation is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The charity also works to raise awareness of the condition and fund pioneering research in partnership with the experts at Great Ormond Street.
A couple of years ago Hannah also took Elijah to the charity’s photo exhibition called How Do You C Me Now, in London, to see the beauty of other people with CMN.
“As he gets older he’s definitely more conscious of it,” says Hannah. “He’s reached the stage now where he asks me to check with him before I tell people about it.
“Because his main birthmark is under his hair, people don’t always notice at first. His hair grows super fast so he really wants it put into dreadlocks, but we wouldn’t be able to see his skin clearly enough through them to monitor it, so we’ve reached a compromise where I braid his hair into extensions every week.
“The hard conversations have to happen too. The other day he said, ‘Mummy I know I can get cancer because of my skin’ and I never shy away from those talks because I want him to be able to explore these things with me in a safe space.
“So I just reiterated the importance of checking his moles for any changes, and protecting himself from the sun, and asked him how he felt about it all. And he said he thinks his skin is ‘cool’.”
Elijah was discharged from Great Ormond Street just before the pandemic hit because his specialists were happy that his skin is stable.
Now he’s intent on following in the footsteps of his dad Adam, who used to play for Belfast Giants, and creating a life for himself as a sportsman.
“Even though he’s only eight, he’s really determined,” says Hannah. “I think growing up and hearing about his daddy’s ice hockey career, he knows that it’s possible to make the dream a reality if he works hard.
“We’ve explained that his skin is more vulnerable, and the other day in training he did cut his scalp, but actually that’s the first time that’s happened in years.
“He was starting to make a name for himself locally as a great wee keeper, and word got back to Glasgow Rangers Youth Academy, so they sent a scout over to watch him playing for Carrick. Now he trains with the academy at a session in Belfast every weekend.
“He’s promised his granda a Lamborghini when he’s famous, although his granda’s a Newcastle supporter, and wants a Newcastle logo on the car. It’s their running joke.
“But we tell Elijah to follow his dreams and let nothing hold him back.”
For information visit www.caringmattersnow.co.uk
WHAT IS CONGENITAL MELANOCYTIC NAEVI?
Congenital melanocytic naevi — known as CMN — is caused by a genetic mutation.
Patients have large and often hairy birthmarks, often accompanied by a number of smaller marks or moles across their body.
The skin of the mark can be more fragile than normal skin and tears easily.
Patients also have a higher risk of developing neurological problems or skin cancer.
For more information, contact support group Caring Matters Now. Go to