Golfer Andy North has seen the progress in melanoma awareness
It's Skin Cancer Awareness Week on OnMilwaukee.com, dedicated to the memory of our colleague, Tim Cuprisin, who died of melanoma last fall. Melanoma kills 9,100 Americans each year, but together, we can beat it. All week long, we're bringing you survivor stories, prevention plans and breakthroughs to make skin cancer a disease of the past. We've also set up a fund in memory of Tim and urge you to donate here. Skin Cancer Awareness Week is sponsored by the Dermatology Associates of Wisconsin. Enjoy the Milwaukee summer, but be safe and smart in the sun!
Two decades ago, the United States Golf Association approached Andy North with a request – to share his story. It wasn't the one you might expect though, especially for a two-time U.S. Open champion.
No, the USGA didn't want him to talk about winning the hardest golf tournament in the world, chipping or putting. They wanted his voice, and his face, to help make a difference.
In 1991, the Madison resident was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a slow growing disease that is the most common type of skin cancer. Born in 1950, North grew up in Monona, and led an active, outdoor life. He took up golf early, and attended the University of Florida where he was a three-time All-American.
He won the Wisconsin State Amateur in 1969, the Western Amateur in 1971 and turned professional a year later.
Through all those years, all the hours under the sun, North never wore a hat. Sunscreen wasn't a priority, even though his father had long battled skin cancer. In 1991, his wife Susan noticed an oddity on his nose, leading to his diagnosis, and eventually its removal.
The cancer had been growing for a year, and a hole the size of a quarter was removed from his nose and cheek, leading to plastic surgery.
For North, it was a scary ordeal, but one he was perfectly content at handling privately. But the USGA pushed. He could make a difference.
He relented, penning a first-person article for the USGA's Golf Journal. That story has been reprinted in countless golf and skin-cancer related publications over the years.
"I've always been the kind of person that if you have an issue, you deal with it and you move on," North reflected. "And this was kind of, I don't want to be made a big deal because of this because there are millions of people who deal with this same thing every single day. They convinced me this would be a good thing so I did it. It just seemed silly to me to make such a big deal of it because that's how I am, but looking back now I'm really glad I did because hopefully it opened up some eyes and the fact that so many organizations from the superintendents of America to whatever have asked to have that reprinted in their publication, now you see that it was really a great thing to do."
In just the last 10 years, North has had skin cancer cells removed from his back, face, neck and arms. He sees a dermatologist twice a year, and begins every day by applying sunblock. If he's going to be outdoors for any type of activity, he applies a second coat at a higher SPF.
Now, it's rare to see any golfer playing or practicing without a hat or sunscreen, and when he and Susan take time to go the beach or outdoor recreation areas, he sees young kids wearing long sleeve sun shirts and parents generously applying lotions.
North takes some satisfaction in seeing that.
Two decades ago, awareness was a key point in North's efforts.
"It's come a long, long way in the last 15 years even since I had my first major episode. Obviously so much of the damage was done years ago, you can't change that, but you see how this generation of parents – you see so many more little kids around the pool or at the beach with these long sleeve sun protecting garments on, which is fantastic," he said.
"There are so many more, good sunscreens for babies and little kids. Over the last 10, 15 years people are so much more aware of what's going on. I think we've made so many advances that way.
"The awareness has been fantastic. For those of us who didn't do that as children – and there are millions of us out there – you're paying the consequences today. It's one of the cancers that if you stay on top of it and you get regular checks and you have little things removed before they get to be big issues, it's a very livable and deal-able problem. Overall, we've come a long way in how we're dealing with this."
North has remained passionate about the topic, and his attention has turned to his native Wisconsin. He began a charity golf outing in 2009 in the Wisconsin Dells to support the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center.
A Madison resident, North felt fortunate to have a leading cancer center at his fingertips, yet he says many who suffer from the disease don't know one of the world's premier facilities is easily accessible.
"The cancer center here is, year after year, rated in the top four or five in the world, yet we've got people living half a mile away that if they have a problem they don't even know where to go," North said. "I think sometimes being good Midwesterners, we don't pound our chest enough."
North says seven thousand cancer patients a year come through the doors at the Carbone Center, which is the beneficiary of his Andy North and Friends golf outing. In 2009 the event raised just under $300,000. This year's event topped $1 million.
"It would be nice to say that at some point in time we can cure every one of those people," North said. "Unfortunately sometimes you just can't, and that's a horrible thing. But the neatest thing is that we're doing the best here to make sure you can get to that point. The dollars we're going to raise is going to go into research, and that research will find cures.
"In the last three or four years there's been some unbelievable progress made right here. We've got multiple programs that are worldwide, that this is the protocol that you use, that was developed right here in Madison. Those are the things that we're really proud of. We'd love to be able to have Andy and Friends one of these years to celebrate not having to raise any more money. I think that's everybody's goal. We're a ways away from that, but we're getting closer every day."
North, who now spends most of his time analyzing golf for ESPN and ABC, finds satisfaction in talking about his past and current battles with skin cancer, and the efforts he's made to bring about more awareness of the disease and what Wisconsin has to offer to those affected by it.
In a way, he's become perhaps more well-known for that advocacy than decorated playing and broadcast careers.
"If it only affects one person positively, we made a step in the right direction," he said simply. "If nothing else, that's been a big step. But I think overall it's something people have written about and talked about and for someone to die of a skin cancer, it's really sad because so much of it can be prevented."
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