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Uplifting: Grassroots Efforts by Wistar Supporters Raise Awareness and Funds for Melanoma Research
Darien Sutton

The latest melanoma statistics cite that one person dies of melanoma every 52 minutes, and more than 10,000 people will die of the disease in 2016.* While melanoma accounts for less than 1 percent of skin cancers, it contributes overwhelmingly to the majority of skin cancer deaths each year.

These are dark statistics, but Wistar’s bright, shining supporters demonstrate what can be done to raise awareness and funds for melanoma research. Eleanor Armstrong is such an example. She spread the word of melanoma awareness and it caught on like wildfire. This time next year, she will be holding the 2nd Annual Team Elbo Melanoma Awareness Walk.

“My friends and family like to say, ‘Oh boy, here comes Eleanor on her soapbox,’ because they know I’m a strong advocate for sun safety,” said Eleanor. “And those same friends are getting yearly check-ups and sending me texts saying ‘Hey, I just went to the dermatologist,’ or ‘My skin check was clear of abnormal moles.’ So, I absolutely know every reminder about melanoma prevention counts.”

Eleanor three times has been diagnosed with melanoma starting in 1996. The first time, her daughter spotted an abnormal mole on her back. Eleanor promptly saw her doctor, who confirmed melanoma and immediately removed the mole. She has never needed treatments since.

Fast forward 10 years to a South Philadelphia coffee shop where Eleanor picked up a flyer Running for Cover, a 5K run/1-mile walk organized by the Noreen O'Neill Foundation for Melanoma Research.  

“It was the first time I’d seen a melanoma awareness event—I’d always seen other cancer awareness events,” said Eleanor. “So my sister Susan Gallagher and I met with Kate (O’Neill), executive director of the Foundation. And what started as a team of my sister and me, grew to 25 people.”

The Noreen O'Neill Foundation for Melanoma Research was founded in 1999 by Noreen O'Neill after her diagnosis of malignant melanoma. Noreen was a woman of great energy and legendary humor, and a lifelong Philadelphian. In her memory, the Foundation has dedicated over 16 years to raising awareness about melanoma and funding research into increased prevention, early detection, and new treatments.

In July, the Noreen O’Neill Foundation for Melanoma Research officially transitioned their research fund to The Wistar Institute. Still, Kate O’Neill, director of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, continues to connect new supporters and advocates—like Eleanor—with the research taking place at Wistar’s Melanoma Research Center.

Running for Cover has ended, but I wanted to raise melanoma awareness through a walking event open to everyone, and on a day in October when the Eagles are away!” said Eleanor. “Two weeks ago we held the 1st Team Elbo Melanoma Awareness Walk with 43 participants and raised over $4,000—the most I’ve ever raised! These funds will support Wistar’s vital melanoma research that Wistar scientists do daily.”

Friendship with Kate O’Neill along with a life-changing cancer diagnosis brought Ann and Rich Beston into Kate’s Foundation as board members and eventually pulled them into the Wistar fold as supporters. Rich was diagnosed with late-stage melanoma that had metastasized throughout his body. He fought the disease, and in early 2000 he was told there was no evidence of the disease left in his body. His and Ann’s advocacy work through the Noreen O'Neill Foundation for Melanoma Research has passed down to their children.

This past month, their daughter Shannon helped organize a fundraiser through her field hockey team and raised $1350. It happened on one very successful night—a doubleheader—where both JV and varsity Great Valley field hockey teams won.

“It was a great game, we won 5-0 and the sunset was beautiful!” said Shannon. “We had a blackout game (meaning attendees were asked to wear black in support of melanoma). We decorated the fences surrounding the field with black awareness ribbons and took up collections in donation boots. We also had ‘in honor of’ and ‘in memory of’ boards honoring our Great Valley friends and family members who have survived melanoma and those who lost their battles to this deadly cancer.”

Through two interconnected grassroots campaigns, Eleanor Armstrong and the Beston family have created amazing success. The Institute is most grateful for their tireless crusade, immense dedication and hard work raising awareness and funds for melanoma. Their personal stories motivate all the scientists and staff at Wistar to continue making progress and pushing the research envelope toward discoveries that could be lifesaving treatments for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

To learn more about supporting Wistar Science contact Anita Pepper, Ph.D., vice president of Institutional Advancement at apepper@wistar.org, or learn more about The Wistar Institute Discovery Fund.

*Statistics provided by The Skin Cancer Foundation website.