When I tell people I had cancer at the age of 20, most automatically react with "but you were so young!" or "what a terrible thing to go through so early in life." The "being young" part may be true, and it was an experience I'll never forget, but in hindsight I'm not so sure that it was "terrible." I was diagnosed when I was only 20 years old, but I look back now and realize that having melanoma before I was even considered an "of age" adult in the U.S. was a complete blessing in disguise.
At the age of seventeen I was like most girls that age; I was insecure and uncomfortable in my own skin. As a fair featured redhead, I was often teased for having such a light complexion. By the time I was a senior in high school I was fed up with being ridiculed, so I began visiting tanning booths. Within a few weeks I had the bronze complexion that most people long for, and I was determined to stay that way. So for the next three years I went tanning once a week and hit the beaches every opportunity I had.
During my sophomore year at college and two weeks before my 20th birthday, I came home and went to my doctors for a routine physical. While I was there I pointed out a mole on my stomach that had begun to get dark and itched on occasion. My doctor argued with me, encouraging me to "leave it be," but even at the age of 19 I knew something was wrong. I wouldn't leave the office until she wrote me the referral to see the surgeon.
So I quickly went in, had the mole removed and hit the tanning beds the same day. Two weeks later, when I went in to have my stitches taken out, I was informed I had Stage 2 Malignant Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. The doctor explained that steps would now have to be taken to ensure the cancer had not spread inside my body. Here I was, 20 years old, wondering if I was going to die.
I left the doctor's office in a haze and immediately began crying. I called my parents, who tried to console me, although I could hear the terror in my mother's voice. Her 20-year-old daughter had just been told she had cancer. I still can't imagine what that was like for her to hear.
The next two months were filled with doctor consultations, blood tests, radioactive dye injections, and the most embarrassing appointment of my life. I would be asked to stand completely naked in a doctor's office while every inch of my body was photographed for documentation purposes.
A month later on February 14th, 2004, I would head to Wing Memorial Hospital in Western Massachusetts to undergo my first surgery. The procedure took three hours, included the removal of eight lymph nodes and 75 stitches, and left me with four disfiguring scars. After my surgery I would be forced to wait for two weeks before hearing whether or not my lymph nodes were "clear." Eventually I received a call from my surgeon with the good news that I was cancer-free.
Relief quickly spread over the Rothschild household, but my personal struggle was far from over. In a quest to obtain unobtainable beauty I had permanently disfigured myself, and the next year would be filled with endless tears and heartache. I began hating my body even more than I did in high school and I blamed myself for my poor lifestyle choices. How could I have done this to myself? My inability to accept my body was the reason I had cancer and I couldn't cope with my self-hatred.
In May of 2005, a junior in college, I was asked to write a piece on my experience for a magazine I was freelancing for in Newport, RI. I realized it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and to help other women dealing with the same body image issues I had dealt with for years. I posed on the cover of the magazine baring nothing but my scar and wrote a two-page spread detailing my story.
Since then I have been on a crusade to help stop other women from making the same mistakes I did. I have been featured in countless local and regional publications and the more nationally recognized Marie Claire Magazine, Teen Vogue, Fitness Magazine and given an award by Cosmopolitan Magazine for my efforts in melanoma awareness. I have appeared in countless PSAs, including one of 2011's most-shared ads, Dear 16-Year-Old Me.
Through my work, I hope I have saved lives. I am a huge advocate for sunscreen wearing, and TIZO is one of my all-time favorite sun-protective products. Learn from my mistakes. Here we are, in Melanoma Awareness Month and the weather is heating up and becoming more beautiful every day. Protect your skin, it’s your body’s largest organ and the only skin you’ve got.
Meghan Rothschild is the President & CBO (Chief Badass) of Chikmedia, a full-service Marketing & PR firm. She has been a spokesperson for melanoma awareness for over 15 years. You can read more about her via her website, MeghanRothschild.com, or by following her on Instagram @outwithmeghan.