Caroline Cooper was an obsessive sunscreen user, but still got skin cancer
“It can happen to anyone.”
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Caroline Cooper’s passion was outdoor adventure, guiding canoe trips, rock climbing and wilderness trekking. In 2013, she’d landed a dream job in Hong Kong, teaching kids to surf, kayak, rappel.
“My office was the outdoors,” explains Cooper, 29.
Fair-skinned, she always wore a SPF 30 sunscreen and conscientiously reapplied it to prevent getting burned. But she never worried the sun exposure would lead to skin cancer.
“I thought skin cancer was just an ugly mole, something you cut off,” says Cooper.
That changed when she was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. The rate of melanoma has been rising in Canada, about 2 per cent a year for men and 1.5 per cent for women.
For Cooper, it began one morning in Hong Kong when she noticed a golf ball-sized lump on her neck. A doctor there biopsied it and told her it was melanoma.
“That’s a good thing, right?” she blurted out, having feared breast or brain cancer.
“No, not really,” he replied.
She returned to Toronto. Medical scans revealed tumours in her neck. Cooper underwent surgery that removed 63 lymph nodes from her neck. Eleven were cancerous.
“I have a scar running three-quarters the way around my neck,” she says.
Cooper had 33 radiation treatments. By the end of 2013, evidence of the disease was gone, but the oncologist warned her it might return.
Sure enough. Follow-up scans in the summer of 2014 showed spots in her lungs, liver and at the base of her skull. The melanoma had spread.
“Nobody asked me about death, but the thought was going through everyone’s mind,” says Cooper.
She was enrolled in a clinical trial for the drug MEK162. “It kicked my ass,” says Cooper about the side effects — severe nose bleeds, hair loss, sore joints and a rash on her face and torso so painful she required morphine. The young woman who once energetically scrambled up rock faces was curled up for three-hour naps.
In six months, the tumours shrank 30 per cent, but then the drug stopped working. “My body built up a resistance, which my doctor had predicted,” she explains. She was transferred to another drug, ipilimumab. It caused fewer side effects, but scans showed improvement.
During her post-radiation remission, Cooper had met Justin Douglas on an online dating site, and the two grew close. He accompanied her to medical appointments and moved in with her and her parents when the cancer returned. “He would hold me when I cried, and I could tell him things that scared me,” says Cooper. “He was my knight in shining armour.”
On June 13, 2015, the two married. Three months later another scan showed she was fully in remission.
She won’t return to leading outdoor adventures, the career she loved. “It’s my skill set. I can set up a tarp with my eyes closed,” explains Cooper, who is grappling with changing career paths.
In all her time outdoors, she never had a bad sunburn, a risk factor for skin cancer. Nor did she ever go to a tanning salon, another possible factor.
“It was just all the days out in the sun added up,” she says. “It can happen to anyone.”
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