Skin cancer: Personal perspectives of those affected

Studies show that more than 1 million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year, with an estimated 10,590 deaths expected. But what these statistics don't reveal are the personal stories of people affected by skin cancer -- from the young mother who tanned obsessively as a teenager and now is battling recurring melanoma, to the family members of skin cancer victims who lost their lives and find inspiration by helping others learn how to prevent this potentially deadly condition.

Speaking today at the American Academy of Dermatology's (Academy) Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month news conference, three women affected by skin cancer shared their experiences and how they have funneled their pain and grief into raising awareness about this preventable condition.

Colette Coyne: Inspiration for the Colette Coyne Melanoma Awareness Campaign

For Colette Coyne's daughter, Colette Marie Brigid Coyne, her battle with melanoma started four years after noticing a change in a mole that was partially removed when she was 22 years old. At age 26, surgery was performed to remove the remaining portion of the mole, which was not diagnosed as melanoma.

Unfortunately, that diagnosis changed four years later when Colette experienced soreness under her arm. In May 1998, Colette learned that four inoperable tumors under her arm were to blame, but this time the diagnosis was melanoma. Colette underwent unsuccessful chemotherapy and by August 1998 the melanoma had spread to her liver, lungs, bones and brain.

"When we were told that Colette's cancer was terminal, we were shocked. She died two and half months later," said Colette's mother, Colette Coyne. "But Colette never wanted to be a cancer victim. She faced her death courageously and spent her remaining time sharing her love with family and friends. Her brave fight and her concern for family enabled us to get through this horrible time and inspired us to make melanoma awareness our cause, our tribute to her."

Through the support of family, friends and co-workers following her death in 1998, the Colette Coyne Melanoma Awareness Campaign (CCMAC) was founded. It is dedicated to increasing public awareness of skin cancer and working to change attitudes and behaviors when it comes to tanning and sun exposure.

New law protecting teenagers' access to tanning

On April 4, 2005, CCMAC's local efforts to impose tanning regulations for minors paid off as the Nassau County Legislature unanimously passed a new law restricting teenagers' access to tanning salons.

Known as the Colette Coyne Skin Cancer Prevention Law, teens under age 18 will need parental permission to use a tanning bed and those under age 16 will need to be accompanied by a parent. Tanning salons also will have to post signs warning patrons about the health hazards of tanning and begin keeping records of all tanning sessions.

"While we are grateful for what has been accomplished, there is still much work to do on the legislative front to establish laws regulating tanning salons and ensuring that only dermatopathologists examine skin biopsies," said Coyne. "Colette's spirit is with us, strengthening us as we strive to help other families in their fight against melanoma."

Natalie C. Johnson: Educator and co-founder of the Cancer Crusaders Organization

When Natalie C. Johnson lost her 21-year-old brother, Eric, to melanoma and a rare germ-cell tumor within two months of his diagnosis, Johnson and her family quickly learned how their family history put them at an increased risk of skin cancer.

"Growing up in northern California, my family was generally aware of the risks of skin cancer and took sun safety precautions most of the time," said Johnson. "But it is our physical characteristics -- blonde hair, fair skin, blue eyes -- coupled with our genetic predisposition to develop multiple abnormal moles that I believe put our family at an increased risk for developing this deadly condition. While my mother and aunt both developed basal cell carcinoma and my grandfather had actinic keratoses, my brother succumbed to melanoma before he even had a chance to fight."

Funding for cancer research and treatment

After months of grieving, Johnson decided to use her brother's tragedy as a way to fight for those at risk for skin cancer and began a crusade in her home state of Utah to raise awareness and teach others how to recognize the warning signs of melanoma. Through her work at the High Risk Melanoma Clinic at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Johnson taught patients the ABCDs of melanoma, assisted in the clinic's yearly free skin cancer screenings, and participated in lobbying efforts at the Utah State Capitol that led to the allocation of $4 million to the clinic for cancer research and treatment.

In 2002, her involvement in skin cancer education became her platform when she won the Miss Utah title of the national Miss America Organization. Through her efforts, Johnson was able to broaden her work statewide and reached more than 500,000 Utahns with her skin cancer prevention message.

Cancer prevention curriculum for colleges

In April 2003, Johnson co-founded the Cancer Crusaders Organization (a.k.a. the Utah Cancer Crusaders), a non-profit service organization aimed at providing effective cancer education for Utah's college-age population. Recently, the organization launched the "Only Skin Deep?" campaign to provide colleges with an in-depth skin cancer prevention curriculum and worked with the governor of Utah in getting an official declaration signed at the state capitol recognizing and adopting Johnson's Skin Cancer Awareness ribbon.

"I am so fortunate to be able to honor my brother's memory by spreading the word about skin cancer prevention," said Johnson. "Skin cancer doesn't have to be a death sentence, but it requires all of us to educate ourselves on the risks and take precautions in the sun every day of our lives."

Robin Lawrence-Broesch: Survivor and educator

As a farm girl raised in southern Indiana, Robin Lawrence-Broesch spent much of her time out in the fields on hot sunny days and was part of the generation that used baby oil and iodine to get a good tan. After graduating high school, she started competing in bodybuilding competitions and began using tanning beds to sport the dark tan that was so popular in this sport. Lawrence-Broesch loved being tan and seized every opportunity to be outside in the sun and planned every vacation to sunny destinations.

But Lawrence-Broesch's sun-worshipping lifestyle soon caught up with her. In March 2002 she learned that she had melanoma and in the three years since her original diagnosis, Lawrence-Broesch has had a total of 19 biopsies -- five of which were melanoma.

"The question I kept asking myself was 'Why me?,'" said Lawrence-Broesch. "After looking back on my life, I realized I had only myself to blame. But I can honestly say that when I was growing up, I knew very little about the dangers of tanning or the threat of skin cancer. It's so ironic that my pursuit of a healthy, active lifestyle was what would eventually come back years later to threaten my life."

Using personal experience to educate others

Working as the director of marketing at the Evansville Cancer Center in Evansville, Ind., Lawrence-Broesch realized that she could illustrate the ugly side of tanning by showing her own personal battle scars from melanoma to help educate others.

She has conducted more than 100 presentations in middle schools, high schools, universities and for the public reaching more than 12,000 people. A familiar figure at health fairs and community swimming pools, Lawrence-Broesch distributes educational information about skin cancer and free sunscreen.

Through her work in educating others about skin cancer, Lawrence-Broesch has met several people with melanoma -- including some who weren't as fortunate to have the same outcome as hers.

"I met a 24-year-old mother of two who died two months after being diagnosed with melanoma," explained Lawrence-Broesch. "I had a chance to talk to her before she passed away and videotaped our conversation to share her story with kids to let them know that the only difference between her and me is that I'm alive because of early detection."

For more information about skin cancer, visit the Academy's patient education Web site at and select "SkinCancerNet."

Headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential, and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 14,000 physicians worldwide, the Academy is committed to: advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair and nails; advocating high standards in clinical practice, education, and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care for a lifetime of healthier skin, hair and nails. For more information, contact the Academy at 1-888-462-DERM (3376) or

Source: American Academy of Dermatology, Contact: Jennifer Allyn, 847-240-1730 or, Aisha Ansari, 847-240-1735 or, or Lisa Doty, 847-240-1746 or, all of American Academy of Dermatology.

Discuss This Article