Edward Williamson was no sun worshipper. In fact, most of his life he diligently avoided it.
"I never saw my father with his shirt off," recalls his daughter Tara Coates. "He didn't enjoy being out in the sun and on the beach."
Adds his son Greg: "He worked indoors all life; his skin was the color of milk."
The one thing that drew him outdoors was golf, a favorite pastime. He wore a hat and covered his arms. The only part of his body that was exposed was the small area of his neck where his golf shirt parted to form a V.
And it was there in 2005, when Williamson was 59, that his wife, Adell, noticed a suspicious-looking flat brown patch. She urged her husband, a restaurateur, to have it checked by a dermatologist, and after much nagging, he finally consented. A biopsy revealed that he had skin cancer, specifically melanoma.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and is expected to cause 76,000 new cases and 9,100 deaths in the United States this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. More than one person dies each hour from melanoma, and it's the most common cancer killer of young women, more common than breast cancer for those between 29 and 34.
Fortunately, Williamson's melanoma was caught early. It was what dermatologists call "in situ." In other words, it hadn't sunk roots deep enough to infect the lymph glands and migrate to other parts of his body. Or so the Williamson family thought and hoped.
The patch was removed, as well as a safe margin of surrounding tissue to ensure that the melanoma was completely eradicated. From that point on, Williamson dutifully visited the dermatologist every six months for a thorough inspection. No other suspicious marks were ever spotted.
The summer of 2009 was a busy, happy time for Williamson. With Greg, he went hiking in the rain forests in Washington state and fished for salmon on the Skagit River. When he came home, he journeyed to Ireland, his ancestral homeland.
But his behavior began changing in the fall. He became lethargic and began taking frequent naps. He also began losing weight.
On Dec. 17, 2009, he had a seizure and collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. There, doctors discovered lesions on his brain. Actually, the situation was much worse.
"He had cancer in his brain and every bone and organ in his body," Tara says. Tests revealed the cancer was melanoma.
"We were shocked and horrified because we thought that wasn't possible," says Tara, 41, of Malvern. "He had been so vigilant about going back for checks." Six weeks later, on Jan. 29, 2010, Edward Williamson, 64, beloved father of six, died.
"It was devastating," says Tara.
There's no doubt that Williamson's initial diagnosis was correct; he had melanoma. But its severity may have been underestimated in the initial pathology report, speculates Catherine Poole, founder and president of the Melanoma International Foundation.
Stealthy and elusive, melanoma cells can travel through the bloodstream and bypass the lymph nodes, Poole says. The cells can colonize to form tumors if the lesion has grown into the deeper layers of the skin. Melanoma may erupt at sites that have not been exposed to the sun, such as between the toes. That's why it's important to find melanoma early before it has a chance to penetrate.
"We always recommend patients have a specially trained pathologist, a dermatopathologist, examine their melanoma pathology slides," Poole says. "If there is any question at all, get a second pathology opinion; it is relatively easy to ship the slides to a place of excellence. Medicine is an art, not a science, and there is always a possibility for error. And melanoma has a reputation for being unpredictable. Many doctors commonly say it 'misbehaves.'?"
The Williamson family wanted to do something to honor their father's memory. Through a colleague of her father, Tara learned about the Melanoma International Foundation. In May, the foundation sponsors a Safe From the Sun Walk and 5K Run at Villanova University. The fund-raising event also features free skin cancer screenings from 9 a.m. to noon.
Along with many family members and friends, Greg Williamson attended the event the year his dad died. He also took advantage of the free screening. Unlike his father, Greg had spent plenty of time in the sun. He did landscaping work without a shirt and as a teenager, instead of using sunblock, he oiled himself to see how tanned he could get. He has sunbathed in Jamaica, Hawaii, and Florida, where his shoulders blistered with sun poisoning.
During the screening, an abnormal mark was spotted on Greg's left shoulder blade — a brown circle surrounding a darker mole or freckle. He was urged to have it removed; the biopsy revealed melanoma. As was the case with his father, it was caught early, in situ. "I got real lucky," he says. "In a way, my father's dying saved my life."
Initially, Greg visited the dermatologist every three months. Now, he goes every six months. "Like most men, you tend to put it off, but it's not a put-it-off type of thing," Greg says. "If you put it off, you'll get yourself in serious trouble."
These days, Greg, 46, a food-service manager who lives in Phoenixville, always wears a shirt, covers his head with a big brimmed hat, and slathers his face, neck, and arms with powerful sunblock.
The Melanoma International Foundation was founded by Catherine Poole, 59, of Glenmoore, Chester County, who is herself a melanoma survivor and has written a book about how to prevent, detect, and treat the disease. The Villanova festivities, which take place Saturday, constitute the largest melanoma awareness event in the world, Poole says. Nearly 2,000 people have registered for the 5K run and walk.
Among those will be the Williamson clan heading a team that last year numbered 122. They call themselves "Eddie's Angels" and so far they've raised $30,000 for the foundation.
Says Tara, a marathon runner who now always wears a hat and sunblock: "We're trying to spread the word to other people about the danger of the sun and how serious melanoma can be."