The Melanoma Research Foundation: In the Fight to Prevent Skin Cancers

Issue 23, Summer/Fall 2014

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and unlike most cancers it is becoming more and more common. Yet it is also one of the most preventable cancers.

Every hour of every day someone in the United States dies of melanoma. While the treatment landscape is changing quickly, patients diagnosed with advanced melanoma face a very poor prognosis.

One such patient was the late Diana Ashby. In 1996, three years into her battle against melanoma and appalled at the lack of treatment options, she founded the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) for the purpose of securing more funding for research. Although Diana passed away within a year of founding the MRF, her vision has inspired the organization’s many achievements in the years that followed.

Actress Molly Sims

Actress Molly Sims, whose mother has melanoma, with MRF's Tim Turnham

Research is the founding purpose of the MRF, but clearly the best way to beat cancer is never to get it. For this reason, the MRF is involved in both primary prevention and secondary prevention (also called early detection).

While melanoma can occur in many places—in the eye, on mucosal membranes, on the soles of the feet, etc.—the vast majority of cases are found on the skin in areas exposed to the sun. In fact, UV radiation is the leading cause of melanoma, accounting for at least 75% of cases. With that knowledge in hand, primary prevention is about protecting the skin from the UV radiation.

The culture of beauty conspires against messages of UV protection, however. Teenagers, and particularly teen girls, feel they need to have a “healthy glow” in order to be beautiful. This feeling is reinforced by a robust industry of indoor tanning. Tanning salons market heavily to young people, including high school students. Recent studies have shown that the majority of people have used indoor tanning at least once by the time they are in their early 20’s, and we know that many off-campus college housing facilities promote having tanning beds available.

This culture is dangerous to health. When UV radiation hits the skin it causes damage to the DNA in the skin cells. In response to that damage the body activates melanocytes to release pigment designed to block the sun. That is what causes a tan. In other words, a tan is always a sign that DNA damage has already occurred. Therefore, there is no such thing as a safe tan.

The MRF is promoting UV protection on a number of levels. This year marks the fourth year of a partnership with Cosmopolitan magazine around their “Practice Safe Sun” program. It is also the third year in which the MRF has provided information to Seventeen magazine during May Awareness Month. These publications reach young women and help influence their thinking.

Dr. Samuel Waxman

In addition, the MRF has materials for distribution in high schools, focusing on UV protection. The “Take a Stand, Don’t Tan” pledge is one of the most heavily trafficked areas of the MRF’s website, melanoma.org.

At the same time, MRF volunteers have made visits to legislators in Washington, D.C. and at the state level to push for legislation restricting access to tanning beds by teenagers. The World Health Organization classified UV lamps as a carcinogen, in the same category as tobacco smoke, yet tanning lamps are currently regulated in the same category as tongue depressors. This needs to change, and will only change through pressure on the FDA and state agencies.

As a society we have said some dangerous things should be available, but only to adults. Underage teens are not allowed by buy cigarettes or alcohol, and children are not allowed to drive cars or purchase a gun. Tanning beds should be viewed in the same way, and taking this step will save many, many lives.

The MRF is also involved in secondary prevention, or early detection. If melanoma is found early it is cured 90% of the time through simple surgery. Too often, however, people neglect to check out a suspicious spot until it is far too late.

The critical message to the general public is to pay attention to any spot that is changing or looks different from other spots. The human mind is particularly good at identifying shapes and seeing what looks different.

Melanoma

One MRF volunteer lost her father to melanoma. His cancer was spotted by his pre-school granddaughter. He was giving her a “pony ride” on his back and she said, “You have a boo-boo on your back!” He said it was nothing to worry about, but she remained upset. To calm her down he said, “Let’s have grandma take a look.” She did and confirmed it needed to be checked out by a professional. This finding—by a young child—enabled him to get into treatment earlier than otherwise would have happened and bought him extra time before he succumbed to the cancer.

The messages are very simple: melanoma is deadly, but can be prevented if you protect yourself and your family from UV exposure and pay close attention to your body. Convincing everyone of these facts will go a long way to accomplishing the MRF’s vision of a world without melanoma.

Tim Turnham, PhD
Executive Director
Melanoma Research Foundation
Washington, D.C.