Fulfilling the PROMISE
Raising awareness of melanoma, Ridgewood-based Promise Foundation spreads the word about sun safety
“Just one bad, blistering sunburn during childhood can more than double the risk of melanoma later in life.”
CO-FOUNDER OF THE PROMISE FOUNDATION
Believing it’s never too early to teach kids about sun-safe fun, The Promise Foundation is sharing its message of sun safety and regular screenings with its youngest audience ever – a group of elementary students at Ridge School in Ridgewood. A natural extension of the Ridgewood-based foundation’s wildly successful middle school programs, the pilot program demonstrates its volunteers’ impassioned commitment and its ever-expanding reach.
“Our mission began the day we decided to honor a promise we made to Susan,” says Lisa Conklin, co-founder and president of the Promise Foundation. Her friend Susan DeZaio, a fellow Ridgewood mother, died in 2007 at the age of 45 after a 22-month battle with melanoma.
“Susan couldn’t believe that there were no research breakthroughs in 40 years,” Conklin says, “and she vowed to do everything she could to find a cure. In her memory, our focus is the promotion of melanoma awareness and prevention, as well as partnering with leading researchers and organizations in this field.”
In the five years since her death, several of Susan’s close friends and family formed the Promise Foundation and have made impressive strides. Conklin and co-founder Kim Ford have forged relationships with Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, the Melanoma Research Alliance and the Mollie Biggane Melanoma Foundation.
The most exciting new partnership is the Promise Foundation’s role in the newly formed Garden State Skin Cancer Coalition. Organized by Dr. Steven Wang, director of dermatologic surgery and dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Basking Ridge, the group is composed of seven like-minded organizations in the tri-state area.
“These groups have a lot of synergy,” Wang says, “and bringing them together to share their knowledge and their resources will help us tackle New Jersey’s skin cancer epidemic.”
Under Wang’s direction, the coalition will meet twice a year to share best practices and gain insight from physicians, scientists and researchers.
On “Melanoma Monday” (the first Monday in May), each organization also has committed to sponsoring a public event to draw attention to skin cancer.
“It’s just one more way we can educate the public about the dangers of sun overexposure,” Conklin says.
Looking further ahead, Wang hopes to harness the power of the coalition to further pursue statewide legislation on tanning-bed use.
“There is enough scientific data out there proving that tanning beds increase your risk of melanoma,” he says.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified the ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds a Class 1 carcinogen, as harmful as asbestos and tobacco smoke.
“The Garden State Skin Cancer Coalition,” Conklin says, “is a perfect complement to our on-the-ground awareness initiatives.”
Through its partnership with the John Theurer Cancer Center at HUMC, the foundation also presents seminars at six local middle schools in Ridgewood, Ho-Ho-Kus, Franklin Lakes, Glen Rock and Wyckoff, reaching 4,000 kids every spring with its message of sun safety. Afterward, the middle school students take home backpacks with a clip-on tube of sunscreen and a timeless reminder: “Reapply before you fry.”
“These kids leave our one-hour seminar really aware of how important sun safety is,” Conklin says. “We’re reaching them at a critically important time in their lives.”
The cold, hard facts about melanoma drive the foundation’s agecentric initiatives. For example, Ford says “just one bad, blistering sunburn during childhood can more than double the risk of melanoma later in life.”
Conklin and Ford found an enthusiastic volunteer for the pilot program in Gae Brunner, a retired elementary school teacher in Ridgewood whose husband died of melanoma four years ago. Brunner helped facilitate the program, which kicked off, appropriately, on Melanoma Monday this year.
In addition, the Promise Foundation teams up with Ridgewood’s Parks and Recreation Department to spread the word to the more than 500 campers who participate in Ridgewood Summer Day Camp. The foundation spearheads a trio of summertime initiatives to help create a safer experience for all. Those include pre-season seminars (conducted by representatives of HUMC) to train counselors to deliver daily sun-safety messages to campers; more protective colored T-shirts for all campers; and strategically placed message boards that relay kid-friendly reminders like “wear your hat today” and “keep your sunglasses on.”
The foundation also provides a shady spot – and a strong awareness message – at Ridgewood Lax Day. “We set up sun shelters, slather sunscreen on kids and make sure they’re wearing hats,” Ford says. “Our message is very hands-on, and Lax Day is a perfect opportunity to reach a vulnerable population. Melanoma is the fastest growing cancer in the U.S. and the most common form of cancer for young adults.”
The Promise Foundation’s push is not all about kids, though. The foundation also holds free skin-cancer screenings every spring at The Valley Hospital and at the John Theurer Cancer Center at HUMC. Since the organization’s inception, it has screened hundreds of local residents for skin cancer.
“Screenings are so important,” Conklin says. “There have been no significant advances in the melanoma survival rate in decades, but if we can catch it in its earliest stages, it is 100-percent treatable.”