By Kim Davis, Board Member, David Cornfield Melanoma Fund
David and Sari Cornfield were two of our closest friends. Mark and I met David at Deloitte where we worked. David was the one who, much to his amusement and delight, first discovered our blooming interoffice romance a few years before.
I remember the evening that David and Sari told us about his melanoma diagnosis. David always exuded positivity and optimism, but he had a rare moment of seriousness and concern that night. Despite his tone and the look on Sari’s face as they gave us the news, I barely reacted. I was a little bit embarrassed that I had never heard of melanoma before, but as David explained that it was a form a skin cancer, I assumed that it wasn’t serious. After all, as I recall saying to Mark later that evening, he was lucky because skin cancer could surely just be cut out.
Even as the cancer progressed, Mark and I had no idea how serious David’s situation was, despite regular updates. David fought with courage and grace. He loved life and his glass was always overflowing, as he would say. There have been many times following David’s passing that I have reflected back and wished that I had understood the gravity of his situation and been more sensitive and supportive to our dear friend.
Eventually it became obvious that David wasn’t going to beat melanoma. His case, we assumed, was a tragically rare situation. It wasn’t until after David passed and we helped to form the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund that I began to do more research. I was shocked at what I learned. David’s situation wasn’t rare at all. In fact, it was all too common.
Melanoma is one of the most preventable and detectable forms of cancer, yet its incidence continues to grow significantly, particularly among young people. Most alarming to me was that if people could catch it early, they would almost certainly survive, but if not, they would likely only survive less than five years.
With the advancement of social media, I was able to read all sorts of stories about young people who discovered suspicious moles years before being diagnosed, but didn’t do anything about it. And stories about people who unwittingly engaged in risky behaviour such as allowing themselves or their children to get sunburned or use tanning beds, only to develop melanoma a few years later. Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends – all real people with names and faces. My heart was broken.
I was a 29 year-old, well-educated professional at the time of David’s diagnosis. I was pretty sure that if I wasn’t aware of melanoma, many others weren’t either. Surely if we could educate people, we could save lives. That realization weighed heavily on me and fuelled my commitment to fulfill David’s dream of spreading awareness.
In 2011, the DCMF Board decided to create an awareness video. None of us really knew what it should look like or how we would promote it. At that time, we had no employees and we were all young parents with full-time demanding jobs. Then, divine intevenation. The communications firm that we hired to create the video had a very special member.
Marisa Caple was young, passionate, creative, and extremely talented. She was in our target demographic and she understood how to most effectively reach our target audience. She had a vision that the DCMF board, mostly comprised of accountants and lawyers (not the most creative people), couldn’t fully appreciate. We were contemplating a video to show in schools and camps; Marisa persuaded us to launch the video on YouTube instead. We provided Marisa with the key messages that we wanted to convey and she wrote two alternative scripts for our consideration. We chose one, but Marisa knew that the other entitled ‘Dear 16 Year Old Me’, was the video that would engage and empower its viewers the most.
We wanted our video to be authentic, so we decided to recruit real, young melanoma survivors or families of melanoma patients. Easier said than done! We needed twelve to fifteen participants, but due to privacy laws, we were unable to ask doctors or hospitals for names. We asked our friends and families, but were only able to identify five or so participants. Time was tight as we wanted to get the video released in time for our upcoming fundraising event. So my late evenings were spent scouring the internet for melanoma blogs and websites and reaching out to patients, friends, and families to see if they would be willing to take a chance on DCMF, a completely new and unknown charity, and fly to Toronto to be in our video. We finally found our participants, and they were perfect.
The morning of filming, I was an emotional wreck. This had become an important and personal project. As I got into my car to go to the studio, I turned on my radio and the first song to come on was “Beautiful Day” by U2. This was David’s favourite song and the line ‘It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it slip away’ was his personal motto. I immediately knew everything would be ok.
We met many of the participants for the first time on the day of filming and we felt an instant connection with each of them, a connection we continue to treasure immensely. It was a wonderful, fun, exciting, happy day.
The DCMF board members were not allowed into the filming area, so we really didn’t know what to expect. But when we viewed the first cut of the video for the first time a few weeks later, we knew that it was special. Of course we had no idea how special.
Dear 16 Year Old Me was released on YouTube on May 3rd, 2011. By May 4th, it had over 25,000 views. By May 5th, it had over one million views, including various channels outside of YouTube, in over 15 countries. By the end of 2011, Dear 16 Year Old Me was the 7th most shared ad in the world – an incredible achievement for a small non-profit organization. To say that we were amazed is an understatement.
Today, Dear 16 Year Old Me has been viewed by close to 10 million people in 215 countries, shared by organizations and celebrities, featured in the media (including on NBC’s Today Show), and won a number of awards. The video clearly resonated with people, and through it we have made huge strides in achieving our goals of educating people and saving lives.
Here is just one of the countless emails that we received:
“Thank you, thank you very much! If it wasn’t for your video, that I saw by chance on YouTube a few months ago, I would have never thought to have my skin checked… I actually didn’t know what melanoma was! Now everything seems to be fine, you, your commitment your work actually saved my life. Thank you with all myself, I hope I will have the opportunity to support your precious job in the years to come. I really owe you so much. Thank you. Cesare from Italy”.
Dear 16 Year Old Me propelled the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund onto the global stage and earned us the credibility needed to become the organization we are today. It also validated the fact that our message of awareness was compelling – our viewers heard it, understood it, and shared it.
So with that knowledge, the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund will continue to work tirelessly to promote melanoma prevention and early detection. We are incredibly thankful to everyone who made Dear 16 Year Old succeed and all the donors and supporters that took a chance on us. We hope that we have made each of them proud. And of course, we hope that we have made David proud too.
By Dave Aizer – television host, writer and producer
January 2nd 2015 was the day that changed my life. It was the day my dermatologist called to tell me the mole he biopsied from my face tested positive for melanoma. As a guy who grew up in South Florida, I certainly knew of melanoma; but I had no idea what it really was. I just thought it was “skin cancer.” I didn’t know it could penetrate your lymph nodes, spread throughout your body and potentially kill you.
As you can imagine, I was beyond terrified. Nightmarish scenarios raced through my head constantly. To become acutely aware of your own mortality, and how quickly everything can be taken from you, is a feeling I would never wish on anyone.
A few weeks later, I had surgery to remove the melanoma and some surrounding lymph nodes from my face and neck. Because we caught it early and the melanoma was small, the odds were very much in my favor that it hadn’t spread to any nodes. As it would turn out, I was the exception rather than the rule.
They diagnosed me as stage 3a. What followed was a PET scan, a brain MRI, meetings with oncologists, survival rates and a massive second surgery. That surgery took over fourteen hours and involved the removal of all the nodes from the left side of my neck, the removal of my left parotid gland and a massive plastic surgery reconstruction of my face and neck.
All because of a stupid little mole.
The two weeks after that surgery were the hardest of my life. Not only was I healing physically but I was on pins and needles, waiting for the pathology results. So when the doctor called and told me the most incredible news — everything they took out of me came back clean — I wept, prayed, hugged my family and made a promise that I’d spend the rest of my life (which I intend to be very long) being an advocate against this terrible disease.
So that’s what I’m doing. I’m a television host for the CW here in South Florida and I’m blessed with a platform to educate our community on melanoma detection and prevention. I’ve shared my story on TV and have interviewed my surgeon and oncologist.
Regarding my treatment, I’m on a clinical trial and will have MRI’s, CAT scans, blood tests and oncology appointments for the next few years. I try to live every day like it’s my birthday and I’m grateful for every moment I’m alive.
I’m proud to say I’ve been cancer-free for a year. I’m even more proud to say I’m doing my part to help others avoid what I’ve been through.