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​​​​Susan Cox
Susan Cox is a melanoma survivor. After spending many years tanning indoors and outdoors, she now speaks to high school students about being comfortable in the skin they're in. (Photo: Susan Cox)​

Susan Cox is a sun lover.

Raised in British Columbia, Cox enjoyed swimming in the family pool, horseback riding, and skiing in the winter.

She also loved to tan.

From the age of 16, Cox tanned with her jar of cocoa butter in the summer, and used tanning beds in the winter – she aimed for a 'sun-kissed' look all-year-round.

But in 2007, her tanning days came to an immediate halt.

An itchy mole

In 2007, Cox came across an itchy mole on her right shoulder blade. After seeing a dermatologist in Markham, she soon discovered she had melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer. She was urgently referred to the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

"When I was a teenager, I never felt good enough or pretty enough – if I couldn't be the 'popular' girl, than at least I could be tanned," said Cox. "The truth is that you are good enough in the skin you are in – I wish I knew that when I was 16."

One month after Cox discovered her diagnosis, she had surgery to remove her lymph nodes – and she was clear for three years.

Removing 'the grapefruit'

In May 2010, at an annual check-up in Markham, Cox asked her doctor to look at a swollen lymph node on her kidney. Her doctor found a tumour the size of an orange. In June, she had a CT scan, and by September, she had it surgically removed at the Princess Margaret – by this point it was the size of a grapefruit.

Cox took the next three months to recover from surgery.

In April 2011, she received disappointing news from Dr. David Hogg: she had three more tumours growing.

"I'm not the kind of person that becomes devastated," said Cox. "But I was completely deflated."

Her spirits were quickly lifted when Hogg told her about a new targeted therapy study accepting patients: 345 people across eight countries.

"By the next morning, I was breaking down the door, wanting to get into that study," said Cox.

To qualify for the study, you had to have a BRAFgene, which 50-60 per cent of melanoma patients carry – Cox also carries this gene and was eligible for the study.

A life-saving drug

After two months on the new drug, Tafinlar, Cox's tumours shrank by half. By four months, the tumours were completely gone -- and she's remained tumour-free for three years. 

Last  September, Hogg proposed a new idea – to take her off the drug.

"I was on the drug for two- and- a -half years without any re-growth," said Cox. "Dr. Hogg brought up a very important point – what if I was being treated for something I no longer had?"

Cox had been experiencing side effects from the drug and the steroids were making her muscles weak. She contemplated the decision and, ultimately, decided to go off of the drug.

"Dr. Hogg saved my life.  He's like a master chess player – he's always five steps ahead of everyone I've ever known," said Cox. "This was a scary conversation and a difficult decision to make: but we made it together."

Cox has now been off of the drug for almost nine months, and she's feeling great.

"I know I will be dealing with it again and it will come back. It's a matter of when," said Cox. "But for now, I'm still here. And I'm decorating my beach house."

Cancer: a sobering experience

"Finding out I had melanoma made me really angry," said Cox. "But I turned that anger into determination. I decided I wasn't going to live in my memories – I was going to experience life."

Cox attributes a 'sense of humour' to survival.

"Science and medical advancement is 99 per cent of it," said Cox. "The other one per cent is  grit, humour, great food, and drinking wine with friends and family."

She bought a pink Vespa and named her Miss Pearl, took her grown children to Disney World, and had a family reunion with 26 people over four days in her cabin in B.C.

"I've learned to say what I mean and mean what I say – which was never a problem for me before, but now I can blame it on melanoma," said Cox.

Paying it forward

Cox is a huge advocate of banning tanning beds for children under 18, and spoke at a press conference alongside Health Minister Deb Matthews last spring. As of May 1, 2014, the Skin Cancer Prevention Act came into effect, protecting young Ontarians under the age of 18 from using tanning beds.

Cox volunteers with the Melanoma Network Canada (MNC) and speaks to high school students about melanoma, sun safety and cutting- edge therapies. She's also a peer counsellor at MNC and listens to other people's stories, melanoma experiences and their fears.

Cox is planning one of MNC's walks in Vancouver this fall, Strides for Melanoma on Sept.28 in beautiful West Vancouver, her hometown.

"This is the first B.C. event and I'm excited," said Cox. It's fitting, I think…to be planning a walk along the Ambleside seawall, in a place where I took in too much sun. It will be a full-circle moment."

May is melanoma month. To learn more about melanoma, click here​.​

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