After Losing Her Daughter to Melanoma, This Mom Wants You to Stay Safe in the Sun

glenna and colleen kohl

In 2005, Glenna Kohl was a bright, energetic 22-year-old who'd just graduated college and had a promising life stretched out in front of her -- including a loving boyfriend and a plan to get a master's degree in nutrition. Then she was diagnosed with stage III melanoma, an advanced form of the deadly skin cancer.

Advertisement

Doctors traced the condition back to a mole on Glenna's leg, which had been removed in high school. At the time, lab results reported it as benign, but retesting showed that it was indeed an early form of melanoma.

As you probably already know, melanoma is mainly caused by intense sun exposure. And although Glenna was in otherwise excellent health, eating well and exercising regularly, she'd spent summers lifeguarding on Cape Cod, basking in the sun, and even going to tanning salons to give her pale skin a "healthier" glow.

Like SO many of us.

If caught early, melanoma IS highly treatable. If not, it can be fatal. And although Glenna went through months of intense treatment, she passed away in 2008.

Her family, understandably, was devastated. But they unanimously agreed that they didn't want Glenna's death to be in vain. Even while going through treatment that left her weak and sick, Glenna made a point to publicly speak out about sun safety. And so her family and close friends decided to continue what she had started.

They founded a nonprofit, the Glenna Kohl Fund for Hope, to educate people about sun safety and prevent others from being taken by the deadly disease. Today, Glenna's Fund is still run by her parents, Robert and Colleen. They've raised over $250,000 for cancer research and skin cancer awareness and have no plans to stop now.

In an exclusive interview with CafeMom, Colleen talks about why she remains committed to helping others avoid melanoma -- and why she is certain Glenna would approve.

When you started Glenna's Fund, what were your expectations?
Our expectations were to spread awareness to as many people as possible about how dangerous melanoma can be if not detected early and how important it is to protect your skin from the sun and check your body regularly for signs of damage.

Our first effort was holding a 5K road race at the beach where Glenna lifeguarded for five years. We advertised for this race and distributed informational materials about melanoma and sun safety. Before we knew it, we had over 300 people participating that first year.

We've held this race -- which we call The Piggy Trot, after a college nickname for Glenna -- for seven years now, and every year it gets bigger. We now have over 400 runners, and each year we get more people participating whose lives have been touched by melanoma.

We hold other events periodically to raise additional funding, which we use to contribute to a research fund we have set up in Glenna's name at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center to be used for research studies and treatment of melanoma. We also ... purchase shade canopies for town beaches and community areas, and supply our [Cape Cod, Massachusetts] communities with free sunscreen dispensers which we refill each year.

We've far exceeded what we set out to do and we have no plans for stopping our efforts.

More from The Stir: Mom Shares Photo of Devastating Skin Damage Caused by Tanning

What information about skin cancer do you feel still needs to be better understood?
People need to understand that protecting their skin from the harmful UV rays of the sun doesn't mean that they can never be in the sun and enjoy the outdoors. It does mean, because overexposure to these UV rays can be damaging, that you need to protect your skin.

This means using sunscreen on a regular basis -- summer and winter. And in the height of the summer when rays are so strong, you need to reapply sunscreen every two hours to be protected.

It's been proven that using tanning beds is extremely harmful and puts one at high risk of getting melanoma. Tanning beds should be avoided at all costs. Melanoma is definitely a dangerous disease -- the deadliest form of skin cancer; however, it is very preventable if you take the time to be aware of how to protect your skin while in the sun and make sure you have your skin checked annually by a licensed dermatologist.

Awareness and early detection can help to prevent what could be a deadly disease.

Many people write letters or leave comments on the Glenna's Fund site, thanking you for publicly sharing her experience. What's your reaction to these?
I love reading people's feedback on Glenna's story. It is extremely heartwarming for me, as a mother having lost my daughter, to have perfect strangers read about her life and take the time to write about how her loss made them feel.

There have been so many supportive letters from people who say that after reading about Glenna's experience, it changed their views on tanning and taught them to be safe in the sun. Nothing makes me happier than to know that Glenna has made a difference in people's lives.

glenna kohl and family

What do you think Glenna's reaction would be to the efforts you've made to educate and protect others?
I feel very strongly that Glenna is aware of all the attention she has received and what a difference she has made in people's lives. From the time she was diagnosed, she dedicated her time to taking care of herself and also teaching others the importance of sun safety ... so that others would not have to go through what she was dealing with.

She was very proud to speak out about her disease and to try and help others with her experience. I know she would be very proud of our family and her dearest friends for carrying on the work that she felt was so important.

 

 Images courtesy of Colleen Kohl

Read More >