“The pain that I am putting my family through because of my negligence is the worst feeling in the world,” Briana Bilbray says in a new public service announcement sponsored by the American Academy of Dermatology. “And all I had to do was wear sunscreen.”
Bilbray, the 25-year-old daughter of Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., recently underwent her fourth surgery for melanoma, the fastest-growing form of cancer in the United States. She is convinced that a youth spent unprotected in the sun of San Diego caused the disease, and she is now preaching the gospel of prevention in the PSA with her father as part of the dermatology academy’s SPOT Skin Cancer campaign.
“Everyone knows about skin care but has the mentality of, ‘Oh, that won’t happen to me,’ ” she says. Bilbray never thought it would happen to her. So in 2011, when her family prodded her to finally have a doctor examine the odd-shaped mole on her shin, she didn’t expect bad news.
Two days later, she was diagnosed with Stage III melanoma. Two weeks later, her father discovered he had squamous cell carcinoma, a less severe form of skin cancer, on his lip. The congressman had the patch removed and underwent reconstructive plastic surgery afterward.
The news was too much for his daughter. “I just thought the entire world was falling down,” she says. Her way of coping with her illness was to go into hiding. Her family and friends were there to support her, but she felt no one could understand what she was going through. “There’s nothing that anyone can say to comfort you,” she says.
But after receiving more than 200 messages through Facebook from people thanking her for telling her story or asking for advice as they started chemotherapy, Bilbray realized she was wrong. Those 200 messages and the “Bad Ass Melanoma Warriors” Facebook group, where people share stories, ask for advice, and provide updates, have shown her that she’s not the only one.
Bilbray first came to the attention of the cancer community in July 2011, when she spoke to the City Council in Imperial Beach, Calif., in support of medical marijuana dispensaries. The council was voting on banning them from city limits, and she wanted members to understand how chemotherapy patients benefit from medical marijuana. The council passed the ban, but Bilbray received accolades for sharing her experience and going against her father, who opposes medical marijuana. She doesn’t always oppose her dad, though; she has joined in his efforts to pass the Melanoma Research Act of 2012, which would create a skin-cancer research fund to be financed through indoor tanning-salon user fees.
Briana Bilbray’s support for medical marijuana continues. The drug helped her reduce nausea and regain an appetite after undergoing chemotherapy when antinausea pills didn’t work. “To a chemo patient, that’s the world,” she says. “I’ve come across so many people who have told me that it’s the only thing that’s worked.”
Bilbray hasn’t been able to join the campaign that recently gathered enough signatures to push city leaders in Imperial Beach to reconsider the ban. In April, she was off her feet for two weeks after her latest surgery; she still finds it difficult to walk long distances.
Her most recent CT scan showed no signs of cancerous cells. But there were other scans that were also clean before surgery again became necessary. Bilbray says that’s the problem: The cancer could be present but not large enough to be seen in a scan.
However, she remains optimistic that the more recent surgery was successful. And she’s stopped googling Stage III melanoma; she no longer reads the statistics that tell her the percentage chance of the cancer returning or the number of years her life could be shortened. “Attitude has a lot to do with health,” Bilbray says. “I’m just trying to keep high hopes.”