May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month: How it affects Black people

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month: How it affects Black people
Tereska E. James and her sister (Photo Credit: Joan G. Mitchell)

With May being Skin Cancer Awareness Month, here at rolling out, we feel it’s important to showcase someone who is making a difference. Meet Tereska James. She is the founder of a nonprofit that brings attention to Skin Cancer within the African American community. The organization is called Brown Skin Too Foundation and was founded to provide education awareness of melanoma, the most severe form of skin cancer, as well as to promote skin wellness among people of color.

James started the organization after losing her sister to melanoma in 2015. She is now fighting to make sure other African Americans do not take this disease for granted and that we take the proper steps to protect ourselves. She is also doing a partnership with Unsun for Skin Cancer Awareness Month, which produces skin-protective products with people of color in mind.

Please describe your role as the founder?

I started a charity, Brown Skin Too Foundation, in memory of my sister Tanya A. Haman. She passed away on December 2, 2015 at the age of 44 after a two-month battle with Stage 4 melanoma. I am responsible for leading the organization regarding administration, programs and spearheading the strategic plan. My role also includes fundraising, marketing and community outreach.

What is the mission of your organization?

Our mission is to provide education and awareness of melanoma, the most severe form of skin cancer, and promote skin wellness among people of color. I wanted to bring something positive out of Tanya’s untimely passing and honor her in a way that would preserve her spirit of helping others. Our goal is to help change behavior so that no other mother, father, sister, son, aunt or family member has to experience such a tragic loss.

How does this organization honor your late sister?

As I researched melanoma and spoke to people during my sisters’ illness, I found there was a serious lack of awareness that people of color, in particular, African Americans, could get skin cancer too. Because of this lack of awareness, the cancer is usually caught at later stages. My goal is to educate people on this aggressive form of cancer and change their behavior. For the past two and a half years, Brown Skin Too Foundation has shared Tanya’s story and the devastation of this disease. We kick off Skin Cancer Awareness Month in May by participating in Melanoma Monday on the first Monday in May. Melanoma Monday was started by the American Academy of Dermatology to spread awareness of this disease. We wear all black to bring attention to our cause and encourage our followers on social media to do the same in support. The biggest event is our annual benefit gala called “Melanin Bright, Shine the Light” which honors Tanya’s memory. This year we are donating a portion of the proceeds which will go towards direct patient care to the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute in Newark, Delaware. My sister received treatment there during her illness.

Our first Tanya A. Haman Skin Wellness event was held last year and sponsored by Westside Healthcare Center in Wilmington, DE. We also hold a Don’t Fry Day event in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, which is a national event to provide awareness of skin cancer during the last Friday in May. We hold workshops for kids at local camps, speak at local churches and have a presence at local events and festivals. Early on we partnered with the Delaware Health & Human Services Department for their Protect Your Skin and Healthy Delaware Now campaign. As part of the campaign, I recorded a PSA which recounts Tanya’s melanoma story.

Can you share how you experienced her journey from her diagnosis to her passing?

My sister became ill Labor Day weekend of 2015. She had a severe headache and was vomiting. Our mom Joan G. Mitchell initially took her to urgent care. What was initially suspected as a viral infection that needed to run its course ended up being a Stage 4(plus) cancer diagnosis only days later after she was rushed to ER when she lost all feeling on her right side. After initial testing, she was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma; the cancer had already spread to her brain … there were four large tumors discovered and contributed to bouts of severe seizures.

In Tanya’s case, it was caught in the last stages, and the rounds of chemo and radiation therapy were futile given the aggressive nature of the disease. In the two months after the diagnosis, we set out to do all of the things she loved…spending quality time with her son who is now 11, eating at her favorite restaurants and traveling. Our mom was Tanya’s primary caregiver during her illness and did everything in her power to make sure that my sister’s last days were surrounded by love.

Tanya became unresponsive while on a family cruise to the Caribbean over the Thanksgiving holiday and had to be air-lifted back to the States; never regaining consciousness and passing away only a week later. It was a trip that she had looked forward to for over a year and her last desire was to be able to make the trip with her son and the rest of our family.

Please share details about the partnership Unsun for skin cancer awareness month.

Our partnership with UNSUN Cosmetics is ideal given that we’re both ultimately committed to skin wellness. We’ve launched a social media campaign during this month where we’ll cross-pollinate existing content, do product promotion and give-a-ways, engage our followers with skin protection tips and answer questions and cap off by participating in Don’t Fry Day. The social media aspect works for us as the founder of UNSUN Katonya Breaux is on the West Coast, and I’m on the East Coast.

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