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Climbing for a Cause

In 2006, Dr. Ellen Marmur ’91—chief of dermatology surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center—spotted a pink bump on her nose. A biopsy confirmed it was basal cell carcinoma. Treatment was successful, but then six years later, a similar discoloration below her left eye revealed another carcinoma—which, again, was caught early and treated.

“I was an outdoor athlete—I swam and went on wilderness survival trips—and I led canoeing trips a couple of years after Vassar, which were honestly super, amazing, fun years, but also, that’s where I got a lot of sun exposure,” Marmur says.

More and more individuals are being diagnosed with skin cancer, especially younger people, she says. As an expert on the subject of skin cancer and a surgeon who has treated approximately 10,000 cases since 2003, Marmur says she hopes to make an impact and help save lives.

“I’m seeing younger and younger people getting skin cancer. People are still doing things they know can cause skin cancer,” Marmur says. “If caught early, most skin cancers are 100 percent treatable.”

To help spread awareness, the doctor—along with 10 colleagues and skin cancer survivors—will climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise $1 million as part of the Skin Cancer, Take a Hike! campaign. Scheduled to begin July 18, the team will travel to Africa to ascend the highest free-standing mountain in the world, which rises to 19,341 feet above sea level. Marmur says she wanted to do something momentous to call attention to the behavioral changes necessary to stop skin cancer and to highlight another topic that doesn’t get much publicity—that people of color also need to protect their skin from the sun.

“Twenty-five percent of the skin cancers we treat are in people with skin of color. They are the fastest rising group of skin cancer incidents,” Marmur says.

The situation at the Kilimanjaro Tanzania Albino Society’s Centre of Hope, a camp near the escarpment’s base that is home to some of the country’s albinos, offers added relevance to the climb. Those who suffer from the disease have a difficult time in Africa, Marmur says. In addition to the dangers associated with the complete absence of melanin and Africa’s strong sun, there are misconceptions about the disease in Africa, and people who have the congenital disorder are usually ostracized and thrown out of their communities. Marmur is working with several companies to bring skin cancer prevention products to the camp.

With a $1 million goal, all money raised will benefit the American Academy of Dermatology’s SPOT Skin Cancer™ initiative, which provides public awareness, detection, and prevention programs. No funds will be used for administrative costs, Marmur says, so every penny will go toward programming. The hope is to organize an annual event in communities throughout the U.S. where individuals can take part in a hike in their area, she says.

Several Vassar alumnae/i will join the Skin Cancer, Take a Hike! climb, including David Zara ’84, Victoria Reese ’90, Emily Kenner ’90, and Francesca Gutierrez ’91.

“It’s a very Vassar-inspired thing,” Marmur says.

--Photos courtesy of subject.