23-year-old melanoma survivor: 'I don't want this to define me'

By Stephanie Grimes | Posted - Jan 11th, 2013 @ 11:39pm

KAYSVILLE — When Brittany Wilson's doctor called her on Christmas Eve to tell her he had news, she did not know what to think.

The 23-year-old had been fighting melanoma since Sept. 2011 and was waiting to hear the results of her latest round of tests. She was hoping for the best, but didn't want to set herself up for disappointment.

"I was like, either it's the best christmas present I could ever receive or it's a very cruel joke," she said.

It wasn't a joke — her doctor told her that after 15 months of battling the disease, she was free. Wilson said it was a moment of celebration.

"I thought, ‘OK, that's good, because I was going to freak out if you called me in here on Christmas Eve to tell me I didn't beat it," she said.

Despite the upbeat attitude she tried to hold on to throughout her battle with cancer, she said she just wasn't sure if she could take any more bad news; she didn't "know if I have enough faith in myself for another year."

Now, though, Wilson can put the disease behind her and begin leading a more normal life. She wants to go on a vacation, which she said she hasn't done in five years, and she wants to use her experience to help shape others' lives.

Melanoma statistics
  • More than 1 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year.
  • 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
  • Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old
  • It is the second most common form of cancer for adolescents and young adults 15-29 years old.
  • Melanoma is increasing faster in females 15-29 years old than males in the same age group.
Credit: American Melanoma Foundation

"I don't want this to define me, but at the same time, I'm looking forward to seeing that through my experiences, I have such a great opportunity to help others," she said.

Wilson said she wants to start a nonprofit organization that acts as a resource for young adults with cancer: somewhere they can go not only for support, but for information. She said support groups are plentiful for childhood cancer victims and their families, but young adults have a more difficult time finding others in their situation.

It was an empathetic voice that made the biggest difference in her own fight, she said. A man who was five years out of his own treatment talked to her about what to expect and what kind of experience it would be, and made all the difference.

"Your friends who don't have cancer, they try their hardest to understand the stress you have financially, the stress it puts on a family or having any kind of relationship, but it's not the same," she said. "I don't think there's any kind of outlet for that. Mostly I just believe there's a need for support, for loving understanding."

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Another purpose Wilson would like her organization to serve is educational: she said she thinks when young adults are spending a lot of time in the tanning bed, they are missing out on an important perspective.

"I don't think they understand the aftermath: what it is your body will have to go through and endure if you receive the diagnosis of melanoma," she said. "You would think being tan is glamorous, but it's dangerous more than anything."

Wilson's melanoma was a genetic strain, and she had been tanning only twice before her diagnosis. But she said genes are not everything; she still wants to focus on educating a generation that has seen a 3-percent increase per year in rates of melanoma since 1992.

Current Utah legislation bans minors from tanning without a parent or guardian present. Written permission is required before each visit. It won't solve the problem, but it's a start, Wilson said. She hopes she can get her organization off the ground and begin educating young adults so they will make the decision without a law guiding them to it.

"It's been a long road and it will continue to be a long road," she said. "But my biggest passion right now is starting this up. The biggest thing I'm looking forward to is having an impact and making a difference in someone else's life."

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