By Anna Homa
On the night of junior prom, most high school girls are hoping no one else is wearing the same dress, wondering who their ex is bringing as a date and where the best parties are going to be afterwards.But Tabitha Buis, 19, now a sophomore psychology and political science double major at Eastern, was faced with the baffling news her doctors told her the day before.
She had malignant melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.
“It didn’t hit me for a while,” she said. “It was the last thing on my mind.”
Buis said she didn’t realize how dangerous it was and didn’t even see it as cancer at first.
She tried to deny having surgery right away. Buis said she didn’t take her situation very seriously, but her doctors made her go under the knife as soon as possible.
One week after the diagnosis, the 17-year-old was on the table, having a mole on her right knee removed.
During that week, Buis walked around school casually mentioning she had melanoma to her friends, as if she were talking about why she chose her outfit that day.
She finally understood the situation after her mother made a comment to her teacher about her attitude.
Her mother didn’t think she was taking it seriously and wondered if Buis realized how serious it really was.
“I don’t know how I got through that week,” she said.
The day of her surgery came. Doctors numbed her leg, giving her more than 100 shots to penetrate through the different layers of skin, she said.
She stayed awake through the surgery.
“It didn’t really hurt, but I could feel it,” she said.
The longest part of the surgery was the stitching up. They gave her three layers of stitches, all on the inside for less chance of opening up, she said.
It also allowed for a less noticeable scarring once the incision healed up.
She said the days after surgery are hard for her to remember. She compared the first few days after surgery to walking through a haze.
“Everything was going on, but I wasn’t a part of it,” she said.
Despite her doctor’s orders for her to rest, she went back to school the next day.
People tried to make her go back home but she refused. She didn’t want to just sit around, and because it was so close to the end of the school year, she didn’t want to miss any of her classes, Buis said.
“I did not know what was going on much, but I was there,” she said.
Buis recovered from surgery over the summer and began her senior year in high school cancer free.
She made regular visits with her dermatologist and they both kept steady watch on her skin, checking for new growths or changes in existing moles.
During the school year, she began to research melanoma and read about why it occurs in younger women.
She found continuous trips to the tanning bed is one of the big reasons why the occurrence of melanoma is rising among younger women. That was one of the reasons why she, with no family history of cancer, had developed the disease, her doctors had told her.
Through her research, she realized there were no regulations regarding tanning bed use in Kentucky.
She became determined in her last year of high school to change that.
“It was a way to deal with what had happened,” she said.
The first step was calling her state representative and persuading him of her reason for tanning bed regulation.
With his help, she drafted a bill that would require anyone under 18 to have parental consent to tan and anyone under 14 to be accompanied by an adult.
Her representative spoke to a committee and was able to push the bill through the legislature. Buis credits her tendency to be a perfectionist on getting the bill pushed through so quickly.
She said she was constantly on the phone and sending out e-mails to everyone.
“I’m sure they wanted to block my e-mails a few times,” she said.
Along the way, she did run into a few opponents, who told her she likely wouldn’t get it passed.
And Buis said she didn’t believe she would get it passed that year.
But, by the end of school, her measure had been heard by the senate and passed into law.
The governor even made a visit to her school, Casey County High School, gave a speech and signed the bill into law. He gave her a copy and the school a copy of the bill to keep.
“It’s definitely something I will pass down,” she said.
These days, she spends her time working as an RA in Sullivan Hall, participating on the mock trial team and pledging in Pi Beta Phi.
She frequently talks about her experience with the disease and how she was able to turn it into something that made a difference, even at such a young age.
She participates in Relay for Life in her hometown and volunteers with the American Cancer Society.
Buis said she hopes to work with ACS for the rest of her life because you never know when you’re going to need their help.
She said doctors removed additional moles, but none have been cancerous. Buis makes sure to cover up when she’s outside and tries to avoid going out at the sunniest parts of the day if she can help it. She keeps a container of sunscreen in her purse, she said.
“Cancer doesn’t care how old you are or who you are,” she said.