‘That’s the best kind of cancer to have.’ I wasn’t worthy of calling myself a cancer survivor. I felt myself shrinking.’: Woman raises awareness for Melanoma, ‘My journey is valid’

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“I was 23 years old when I was diagnosed with Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. What most people think of when they hear the word ‘cancer’ is bald, dying, and a disease that impacts organs inside our bodies— not our skin. Throughout my 11 year journey, I have realized people used to be (they’re getting a lot better) bad at connecting cancer and Melanoma. To be honest, most people will think of breast, brain, bowel, cervical, blood, or even ovarian cancers when they think of a young woman with cancer, before they would even think of Melanoma. I mean, that’s just skin cancer, right? Nobody dies from skin cancer…right?

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

I remember sitting alone in the doctor’s office, nervously waiting for my results. 2 weeks ago, I had seen him for a biopsy, and he reassured me, ‘You’re not going to have cancer. You’re too young to have cancer.’ As I waited in that office, hands trembling and legs shaking, I realized how much that one sentence gave me hope for 14 whole days – and that hope was about to evaporate into thin air. ‘I’m sorry but you have cancer. You have Melanoma, and if we don’t remove it, you will die.’ That sentence would forever haunt me. So much for it just being skin cancer.

I lived in a regional town where nothing happened at the same pace as the cities. I had my first surgery and had to wait 2 more weeks before the results were back in to find out whether or not we got all of the cancer. Those 14 days came by, and I found out they didn’t get all of it. I went back and waited another 14 days to hear the exact same thing. The third, and final, surgery proved to be a success with the doctors declaring me, ‘cancer free’ (but not in remission, that’s a different badge of honor).  Little did I know, my battle was only just getting started.

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

I have come to learn a lot about the misconceptions people have of cancer, especially skin cancer, throughout my journey. I have come to learn people deem skin cancer to be the ‘lucky’ or ‘the best cancer’ to be diagnosed with. And let me tell you, that attitude really messed with my mental health during my remission. Most people I met had a real blasé attitude when they found out I had Melanoma, with several (okay, many) people telling me, ‘That’s the best kind of cancer to have,’ and ‘You can’t die from skin cancer.’ Yep, told me right to my face the cancer I had doesn’t actually kill anyone.

For an insecure 23-year-old, I struggled to even confront these comments when they were said. I found myself clamming up, and retreating because to me, it felt like society was invalidating my cancer experience. The general undertone from friends, family, and even strangers, was what I went through and was going through was not a big deal. Some even made me feel like I was not worthy to call myself a cancer survivor because ‘it’s just skin cancer.’

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

As traumatic as the physicality of going through cancer can be – whether you have chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery – no one prepares you for the mental health impacts of having cancer. During the lowest period of my mental health during my cancer journey, I ended up downplaying my cancer experience to avoid criticisms and to be accepted by the wider ‘societal tribe.’ I started saying statements like, ‘I had cancer, but I didn’t have chemotherapy.’ ‘I had cancer, but I didn’t have radiation.’ ‘I had cancer, but it was just skin cancer.’ It was also at this time I found myself in a deep depression from not feeling like I had support. Not only from my intimate circle (family, friends, etc.) but also from the wider cancer community. Why is it young Melanoma survivors aren’t offered or encouraged to seek the help of a mental health professional to cope with the new identity of cancer survivor?

It took me 3 years to realize I was suffering from depression and anxiety. Knowing I had to do something, I sought out a community in an event called, ‘The Ride To Conquer Cancer’ or as I like to call it, the event that saved my mental health and life. It was at this event I met a gentleman, a fellow cancer survivor, who came up to me to start discussing our own journeys. His journey was absolutely courageous. I felt this feeling of not being worthy of even calling myself a cancer survivor because, hey, society and everyone around me had been telling me Melanoma really isn’t a big deal.

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

I felt myself shrinking, so when I started to use the same old justification lines I had used for 3 years, he stopped me and said, ‘You don’t need to say the other stuff. You had cancer.’ It’s hard to put exactly into words how this interaction with this legend of a man positively impacted me, but he made me finally feel like it was okay to have Melanoma. That it was okay to call myself a cancer survivor. And my journey is valid. That man saved my mental health, and boy, he must have foreseen I would need a strong mentality to get through the next 7 years of remission journey.

The last 11 years have opened my eyes to the levels of misinformation and misconceptions about skin cancer. I’ve come to notice when people say ‘skin cancer,’ they do not realize there is more than one skin cancer that someone can be diagnosed with, and I believe it is important to make the distinction and acknowledge the different types of skin cancer. Most people think Melanoma is the only type of skin cancer, and whenever someone gets ‘a skin cancer removed,’ they are, in fact, just having a Melanoma removed. This then creates the perception that having Melanoma, or skin cancer, is not really a big deal and is something that is to be expected as we age. This is despite the scientific evidence identifying Melanoma accounts for 2% of all skin cancer diagnoses, and 75% of all skin cancer-related deaths in Australia.

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

The other types of skin cancers and the majority that are diagnosed are Basal Cell Carcinomas or Squamous Cell Carcinomas. These are known as non-melanoma skin cancers and are the majority of skin cancers diagnosed in Australia. Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer diagnosed and is the least dangerous form of skin cancer, as they rarely metastasize or spread. But you’d still want that sucker treated, it is cancer after all. Squamous Cell Carcinoma is the second most common non-melanoma skin cancer, accounting for 30% of all skin cancer diagnoses. If left untreated, Squamous Cell Carcinomas can spread to other parts of your body and become fatal.

The widespread misconception and lack of understanding about Melanoma and skin cancer have always popped up in comments people say to me or around me in conversations. But one conversation, in particular, stands out in my mind I always use to highlight just how far we have to go to change the societal attitude towards Melanoma and skin cancer. I was at the beach in San Diego during my internship at an action sports magazine (bucket list and career bucket list item ticked off!) and the other young interns were asking me, ‘Why are you so concerned with seeking shade and sun protection?’ I proceeded to tell my fellow interns about my cancer journey, and when I had finished, one of them turned around and said to me, ‘You know, Melanoma isn’t really cancer, it’s more a rite of passage.’ I wasn’t too taken aback since I was already used to this type of attitude surrounding my cancer.

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

Scary fact: did you know that one person in Australia will die from Melanoma every 4 to 5 hours each day? I also learned there will be people who will tell you, directly or indirectly, YOU are the cause of your own cancer. I have had several incidents like this. I had a vegan directly blame me for having cancer because I eat meat and she had no sympathy for me. I also had someone indirectly tell me, ‘Sunscreen causes all skin cancers, and anyone who wears sunscreen deserves to get cancer.’ She forgot I was a Melanoma survivor. I have also been in the room with people who have known about my cancer journey and have made jokes about skin cancer and people who get skin cancer. These ‘friends’ did not realize or care these jokes were at my expense.

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

I’ve often wondered why people would have such a casual, nonchalant attitude when it comes to Melanoma or skin cancer. What is it about Melanoma and skin cancer that makes people roll their eyes, screw up their noses, and form the opinion this kind of cancer is no big deal? I do believe one reason is there is misinformation about skin cancer and melanoma floating around society that is a massive obstacle when it comes to encouraging people to get their skin checked.

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

Another obstacle is the need to rethink the societal stereotype of what a cancer patient looks like and goes through. Most of the time, someone with skin cancer doesn’t look like what society would consider a cancer patient. So, if we don’t look like a cancer patient, or how a survivor, looks, and if don’t go through the stereotypical journey of what we’ve been told someone with cancer goes through, then it can’t really be serious – right?

The biggest thing about myself I have learned throughout my 11-year journey, so far, is I have an inner strength I never knew I was capable of possessing. I was able to manifest strength during those times I was physically alone or felt emotionally isolated. I have been able to stand tall whilst others belittled, invalidated, or made jokes at my expense about my cancer journey and Melanoma. I’d like to be able to say I no longer have to call upon my inner strength in the face of such experiences – but I’d be lying. These things still happen.

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

I also learned seeking community is vital during any situation that is trying and difficult, especially cancer. These people are your tribe and will understand, better than anyone else, the anxiety attacks, and the thoughts that are on repeat. Battle Buddies are important – Seek Them Out. Most hospitals will have a notice board for support groups, or seek them out on Instagram and Facebook. Heck, find me on Instagram and I will be your battle buddy!

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

But the biggest thing I have learned is life is an adventure just waiting for us to enjoy. Seek joy. Seek fun. Seek that which makes you feel most ALIVE. Yes, create a godda*n bucket list and make it full of everything YOU want to do, even if it’s simple things like learning your grandma’s rissole recipe (still haven’t mastered it!). Don’t go sliding into your death bed wishing you could have lived an adventurous life, or a life that was on your own terms and in your own definition. Don’t put your life off to do things that don’t give you joy or give you the sense of being truly alive. Book that 6 month trip around Europe. Start that blog (hello, I did!), start that side hustle, move to another country. Just do it!

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

Slowly, society is starting to understand more about Melanoma and skin cancer. I have seen some changes in attitudes and understanding of skin cancer over the years as advertising campaigns about skin cancer have become more mainstream, and celebrities starting to share their own experiences. But we still have a lot of work that needs to be done to stop normalizing and being desensitized to the occurrence of skin cancer in Australia and to stop the misinformation and misconceptions about skin cancer, especially in my generation and the younger ones. One day, we will get to a place where people won’t say, ‘It’s just skin cancer.’ And don’t forget to slip, slop, slap, and get your skin checked regularly. Sunburns aren’t cute (and neither is skin cancer).”

Courtesy of Lara Daddo

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lara Daddo. You can follow her story on InstagramDo you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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