Donor Story

A Head Start on Skin Cancer

Melanoma Survivor’s Gift Supports Prevention, Treatment at UNM Cancer Center

Michelle G. McRuiz

If it weren’t for her hair stylist’s keen eyes, Ellen King might not be alive today. Eleven years ago, Ellen’s stylist found a suspicious-looking spot on her scalp, hidden by her hair. Following the stylist’s advice, Ellen had the spot checked by a doctor. It was melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

At first, Ellen was diagnosed with stage-IV melanoma. “Fortunately, he was incorrect,” she said. She was evaluated and diagnosed again, this time with stage-II melanoma, which was still dangerous. In March 2000 she had surgery to remove the cancerous lesion, then had plastic surgery a few months later to restore that area of her scalp to a normal appearance.

Ellen was lucky; the cancer had not spread. “There is not a lot of treatment for it once it’s spread,” she said. She has since had her skin checked every six months for signs of reoccurrence. Other than having a squamous-cell skin carcinoma successfully removed eight years ago, Ellen has been cancer-free for 11 years.

“I credit her with saving my life,” Ellen said of her stylist. “I felt like I was really uninformed. I didn’t have a clue that this little bump on my head could have taken my life.”

A Changed Perspective

The cancer diagnosis and treatment gave Ellen an idea. “I wanted to do something that would help the discovery and prevention of melanoma,” she said. She talked to her husband, Jim, about it. Jim, chairman of the board of Bradbury Stamm Construction Inc., one of the contractors for the UNM Cancer Treatment and Clinical Research Facility’s $110 million building that opened in June 2010, has contacts at the UNM Cancer Center. They spoke to Director of Development Kenneth Thompson. He set up a meeting with the Kings; Director and CEO, Cheryl L. Willman, M.D.; and Associate Director for Cancer Population Sciences, Marianne Berwick, Ph.D, MPH, who is an international expert in melanoma research. That meeting helped Ellen and Jim realize that they could make a real difference in the lives of New Mexicans. They established a three-year gift from their family foundation.

“I kept the gift unspecific on purpose,” Ellen said. “I can’t give the kind of money it takes to do real research; I have given the Cancer Center free rein to use it how they want.”

The UNM Cancer Center is using the Kings’ gift in two ways. They are establishing a growing bank of tumor tissue and DNA samples that serves as the backbone for melanoma research. They are also leveraging the funds to apply for major research grants.

“Dr. Berwick is very excited about new things happening in the field [of skin cancer research],” she continued. “It’s great to be on the inside of something like that.”

Giving Within State Boundaries

When deciding where and how to give, the Kings knew they wanted not only to focus on prevention, but also to have their money stay in New Mexico.

“UNM seemed to be the appropriate place,” Ellen said. “We have been supportive of UNM in a variety of ways in the past. I felt we should give within the state. We don’t have a lot of resources [in New Mexico].

“The Kings’ gift is truly making a difference for melanoma prevention and treatment in New Mexico,” said Dr. Willman. “It has already helped us collect and preserve the essential ‘raw materials’ for melanoma research and it is giving us a great boost in competing for large-scale research grants to better understand and combat the disease. The UNM Cancer Center is grateful and proud to have Ellen and Jim’s support.”

Making a gift to the UNM Cancer Center has been a rewarding experience for the couple: Working with scientists and clinicians they trust, keeping their funds in the state, and knowing their gift will make a difference to cancer patients. But Ellen also wants to help educate people who don’t think of melanoma as a real disease. She said a lot of people, including skin cancer patients, don’t take skin cancer seriously. (According to the American Cancer Society, while melanoma accounts for 5 percent of skin cancer cases in the U.S., it causes the majority of skin cancer deaths. About 8,700 Americans die each year from melanoma.)

“Skin cancer is a very serious thing,” she said, “and I want people to pay attention to it.”

Find a Way to Help

Jim, who earned his J.D. from UNM in 1972 but said he never wanted to become an attorney, went to work for Bradbury Stamm the year of his graduation. In 1979 he became president of the company. Their daughter, Cynthia Schultz, is the current president. Ellen runs a small property management company.

“Because we have been so fortunate and our company has done well,” said Ellen, “we felt we could afford to give. I like supporting existing organizations that have a proven history of helping rather than starting something from scratch. If you want to help with something and don’t have huge amounts of money, talk to the organization and they will find a way for you to help them.”