A skin cancer survivor gets frank about the leading cancer killer of young women.
Skin cancer (melanoma) has increased 2,000 percent since 1930, killing one person every hour. Catherine M. Poole was four months pregnant when she noticed that a mole on her leg looked weird. She knew nothing about skin cancer, but the danger signs were a red flag for her. That was the beginning of Catherine's journey with skin cancer. Eighteen years later and president of the Melanoma International Foundation, she's passionate about saving people from the fastest growing, preventable and seriously deadly cancer. Catherine feels lucky. Her skin cancer was caught early, and she's alive today to tell her story.
Q: What was your diagnosis like?
A: My local hospital couldn't figure out the pathology. Two weeks later I insisted they send it to a teaching hospital … [and the teaching hospital] diagnosed melanoma within a day. The right treatment team is crucial. One teaching institution gave me a terrible prognosis and told me I couldn't breastfeed. A second opinion at the University of Pennsylvania was more optimistic and less scary. I ended up seeing Dr. DuPont Guerry, the coauthor of our book "Melanoma: Prevention, Detection, and Treatment" (Yale University Press 2005).
Q: How did the Melanoma International Foundation evolve?
A: When I was diagnosed, nothing was written about melanoma but one book about a woman who died. I heard all kinds of fables, like removing melanoma spreads it to the rest of your body or [that] people are genetically predisposed to melanoma. Absolutely not true. [The] National Cancer Institute says less than 5 percent are genetic. Ninety-five percent are caused by sun exposure.
After the book was published, people began calling for advice, so I started a hotline. Not everybody has a comprehensive cancer center in their backyard, and many can't deal with diagnosis and traveling. People needed help getting to treatments. We do a full navigation package to clarify options and help with airfare and lodging.
Q: How is that funded?
A: Through donations and our annual Safe from the Sun events …. We provide awareness information, free screening by dermatologists, a walkathon and a 5K race. Blue Cross/Blue Shield is one of our sponsors. Raising funds and awareness are really important. Melanoma isn't in the American Cancer Society's top 10 to focus on. People think, "It's just skin cancer. Once it's metastasized, it kills within a year."
Q: Who's getting skin cancer?
A: It's the leading cancer killer of young women now—beating out breast cancer. This is linked to tanning salons. Girls want a tan for the prom. Our "Prom Pledge" program offers beauty salon certificates if girls pledge not to go.
The World Health Organization wants tanning salons banned for everyone under 18 years. The American Academy of Dermatology says 15 minutes in a tanning salon is equal to a whole day on the beach. It's very intense and causes other cancers by changing cell DNA structure.
Q: What about sunscreen?
A: It's overrated. One study showed it increased melanoma by giving a false sense of security. Sunscreen offers secondary protection to clothing, a hat, shade and staying out of the prime noontime hours. Use sunscreen correctly, an hour before going out, and keep reapplying. Go out [in] early morning or late afternoon. Parents should role-model—starting when their child is born—to cover up. Get them used to hats, and wear one yourself.
Melanoma is preventable, but early detection is key. Examine your skin four times per year. Have a partner help, or use our two-minute video that explains how to self-examine with mirrors. New moles, bumps or freckles after age 20 are suspicious. If anything changes, get checked by a dermatologist. Find it early, like I did, and be around to talk about it.
Published on April 26, 2007; updated on June 5, 2014.