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Debra Black Headshot

Standing up to Melanoma

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Several years ago, I had a reddish spot on the bottom of my right foot about the size of a pencil eraser. My dermatologist said it was a plantar wart and did the usual treatment of freezing and burning it off. But it kept coming back and growing. I was alarmed when it started to bleed. The doctor dismissed my concern. "Warts bleed," he said.

I went to a podiatrist, who took one look and said it didn't look like any wart he had ever seen. It wasn't. A biopsy showed that it was melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Several surgeries, skin grafts and months in a wheelchair later, the cancer was gone and I was back on my feet. But I couldn't forget being told that if it had spread to distant organs -- and sometimes it does, even from the feet -- there were virtually no treatment options that would hold out the promise of a cure. The long-term survival rate for late-stage melanoma is only about 20 percent. I could have died from that so-called wart.

My family and I resolved to do something about melanoma and the lack of treatment options for late-stage cases. My husband Leon and I founded the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA) in 2007. Our ultimate goal? Find a cure by funding the most promising melanoma research worldwide. So far, Leon and I have personally provided $40 million in seed funding which allows MRA to distinguish itself by having every penny raised go to research. Today, MRA is the largest private funder of melanoma research.

Collaboration is at MRA's core -- from the team approach to research programs that we fund, to the way we align with partners to help realize our vision. We are proud that Stand Up to Cancer is one of our allies in the fight against melanoma. In a little over three years, Stand Up To Cancer -- an initiative launched by my good friend Sherry Lansing and other entertainment industry leaders -- has funded five collaborative "Dream Teams" of cancer researchers, bringing together over 200 scientists from dozens of institutions to accelerate the development of more effective, less toxic therapies for many cancer types.

It is a smart approach, and the results to date are impressive. SU2C has also made grants to young individual researchers pursuing high-risk, high-reward science, like UCLA's Dr. Roger Lo, also an MRA Young Investigator Awardee, who is exploring the possible causes of drug resistance in some melanoma patients.

There is encouraging progress in the battle against melanoma. For example, scientists discovered a specific biomarker in the BRAF gene that is present in half of people with the disease. This allows targeting of molecular therapies, and the FDA approved two such targeted agents this year.

Yet half of melanoma patients don't have the BRAF biomarker and need other therapies. That's why MRA has joined with SU2C, a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), to fund a three-year, $6 million investigation of targeted therapies for those patients. The project has the distinction of being the first time that SU2C has collaborated with another foundation to fund cancer research.

It's also distinctive for another reason -- for the first time, a woman co-leads a Stand Up To Cancer Dream Team: Patricia M. LoRusso, D.O., who will be responsible for all the clinical aspects. She is director of the Eisenberg Center for Experimental Therapeutics and professor of oncology at Karmanos Cancer Institute and Wayne State University School of Medicine. Dr. LoRusso will work with Jeffrey M. Trent, Ph.D., an internationally recognized expert in molecular-based systems biology approaches to cancer, as project leader. Nearly 50 other gifted researchers from ten institutions, as well as four advocates, will also serve on the Dream Team.

Two out of every 100 Americans will develop melanoma in their lifetimes. It is more common among men than among women, and more common among those with fair complexions and blue eyes, but it occurs in people with all types of skin tones. Like most cancers, it is more common in older people, but attacks younger ones too. Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae artist, died of melanoma at the age of 36. It is the leading cancer among women in their 20s.

Skin damage caused by sun exposure is the single greatest cause of skin cancer, but melanoma can also occur even where sun exposure is very limited. Early detection is key. Regular self-exams for new or changing skin lesions are highly recommended. Even though the melanoma lesion is removed, once it grows below the surface of the skin there is always a risk of recurrence and vigilance remains important.

While anyone at risk should be checked regularly by a dermatologist, my own experience taught me that even renowned specialists can miss the signs. You should be your own advocate. If something doesn't look right, insist on a biopsy.

In the meantime, remember that while a suntan may seem attractive, it can also be dangerous. Prevention is uncomplicated: grab that sunblock and floppy hat when you head outdoors, even in the winter. And forget that tanning bed. There's no skin tone worth the risk of skin cancer.