By Lorianna De Giorgio
It’s a poignant video about a horrible, destructive disease. But the viral video Dear 16-year-old Me isn’t meant to scare people. Instead, the five-minute video about melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is meant to promote awareness and keep the legacy of one Toronto man alive.
The video, which can be viewed at dcmf.ca, was created by the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund, a group founded in memory of a local accountant who died from melanoma in 2005 at the age of 32. It was uploaded to YouTube May 2, because May is Melanoma Awareness Month in North America.
By May 18 it had over 1.4 million hits, with people from Israel to Japan sharing the non-profit video on Twitter and other social media sites.
For Sari Cornfield, David’s widow and one of the co-founders of the fund, the video’s remarkable success in such a short time speaks to its powerful message.
The video features a series of Canadian and American melanoma survivors, as well as family and friends of people who didn’t survive the disease, talking to the viewer — young adults in particular — about the importance of getting their skin regularly checked, the harmful effects of sun exposure and the importance of wearing sunscreen year-round.
“Melanoma is a disease that’s not talked about a lot,” says Sari, adding that the video’s rapid success has been overwhelming.
“David and I talked a lot about (starting a fund). It was something we were going to do together.”
David was first diagnosed with melanoma from a mole on his back at age 29. He underwent a year of treatment followed by two years of remission. His remission was a joyous time for the Cornfield family. David and Sari became proud parents of a baby boy, Noah. David achieved considerable career success, becoming partner at Deloitte, the largest accounting firm in Canada.
But just one week after celebrating Noah’s first birthday, a routine CT scan showed melanoma had reappeared, this time in David’s lungs. A brain scan later showed the disease had also spread to his brain.
He would later undergo brain surgery, radiation and the discovery of other tumours throughout his body before passing away from the disease on Dec. 18, 2005.
Just one blistering sunburn before the age of 18 doubles your chances of getting melanoma, says Dr. Lisa Kellett, a Toronto-based dermatologist. Melanoma affected 5,000 people in 2009 and caused 940 deaths, according to figures from the Melanoma Network of Canada. It can show up anywhere on your body, from the tip of your tongue to the soles of your feet, Kellett says. It can affect anyone, and if not treated early can, like in David Cornfield’s case, be fatal.
Kellett advises people to check their skin and the skin of their loved ones once a month, and look out for the ABCDEs of melanoma: moles that are asymmetrical in shape; that have irregular borders; that are dark black or have multiple colours; ones that are larger than the diameter of a pencil’s eraser; and ones that are evolving, whether growing in size, changing colour or shape.
“Everything (David) did, he did well,” says Sari, adding that after David’s death she wanted to escape from the world but knew she couldn’t because of Noah, who was 18 months old when his father died.
These days Noah, 7, hears stories about his dad and is surrounded by photos of him. “I’m neurotic, but I know every part of my son’s body,” Sari says with a laugh.
Sari started the fund in 2007, and hopes the viral video is just the tip of the iceberg in melanoma education awareness. People have emailed her saying they’ve started examining their bodies for possible problematic moles, and the video has already been shown in schools. There is the hope of turning it into a TV commercial.
Aron Brager, a 29-year-old gym teacher at Robbins Hebrew Academy in midtown Toronto, appears in the Dear 16-year-old Me video. He was diagnosed with melanoma at 19 after doctors noticed a suspicious mole on one of his legs.
In the months that followed, Brager had invasive surgery to remove the mole from his leg and lymph nodes around his groin area. He then underwent 11 months of chemotherapy, first with an intravenous drip at Princess Margaret Hospital followed by 10 months of injections. Brager is now cancer-free, but occasionally visits his dermatologist’s office to double-check any suspicious moles.
“People need to realize how important it is to wear sunscreen. People need to realize how important life is,” Brager says.