By Mara Klecker
Melissa Papock was 26 when she pointed out a small pink spot on her left arm to her dermatologist during a routine body check. She still doesn’t know what compelled her to ask about it — she figured then that it might have been no more than a scar from a mosquito bite — but a biopsy soon revealed that the spot was an amelanotic melanoma, a form of melanoma in which the malignant cells have little pigment.
“I definitely didn’t expect to hear the word ‘cancer’ at 26,” she said. Back then, in 2001, she also didn’t know much about the dangers of melanoma and assumed that her biggest concern might be a scar from removing the small spot.
“I think a lot of people think of skin cancer as ‘cancer lite’ and at the time, I did too,” she said. “Suddenly all this information was thrown at me about how serious it was.”
Melissa’s melanoma was caught early and was removed surgically by excision. As she continued to learn about the dangers of sun exposure, her dermatologist presented her with a catalog of sun-protective clothing.
At the time, Melissa was working for top beauty and fashion magazines in New York. She flipped through the catalog and wondered aloud, “do these clothes have to be ugly to work to protect me from the sun?”
“These clothes were not something I would wear as I march into Conde Nast in a pair of stilettos,” Melissa said. “I knew they were not going to work for my lifestyle.”
Over the next five years, Melissa researched fabrics with the goal of combining fashion with function. After working in public relations, she knew that sharing her own melanoma story would be powerful, but she knew that creating her own company would give her a platform to continue spreading awareness.
“I wanted people to feel like they didn’t have to compromise their sense of fashion in order to be safe and protected,” she said.
In 2006, Melissa founded Cabana Life to create stylish sun-protective clothing for families. The company started with children’s clothing and expanded to women’s clothing in 2012. Cabana Life now offers dresses, coverups, swimwear, and rashguards for the whole family and partners with various organizations to raise awareness and funds for skin cancer prevention, research, and treatments.
In May, Cabana Life is partnering with AIM at Melanoma on several projects, including an Instagram Live event on May 4 at 5 pm EST with Cabana Life founder & skin cancer survivor Melissa Papock and AIM President Sam Guild. Follow @aimatmelanoma and @cabanalife to be notified when they go live. This episode with AIM is part of an Instagram Live series Cabana Life is hosting entitled Skin Deep Talk, featuring thought leaders in the sun-safe community to educate on & bring awareness to skin cancer.
They are also launching a limited edition, “Live Bright” handbag that will officially be launched later in May for purchase. 100% of the proceeds from sales of the “Live Bright” handbag will go to AIM.
“AIM is such a great resource with a great mission,” Melissa said.
Melissa’s mother and husband have also had cancerous spots removed, further fueling her commitment to spreading the message of prevention and early detection.
“You can’t go back and undo the sun damage from your past, but it’s never too late to start forming good sun-safe habits,” she said. Now with three children of her own, she’s hopeful for this generation that has grown up with strong messages about the importance of sunscreen and rashguards. In the 15 years since she’s started her businesses, the overall awareness of sun-protective clothing has increased and started to go mainstream, she said. “I do think the message is getting out there.”