Cancer survivor urges kids to play it safe in sun

Pitcher's wife, a Dundalk native, speaks on melanoma

April 27, 2007|By Andrew Schaefer | Andrew Schaefer,sun reporter

Standing in front of a stage where she danced tap and ballet as a little girl at Colgate Elementary School in Dundalk, melanoma survivor Shonda Schilling held up two white plastic discs slathered with sunscreen and asked for volunteers to take them outside for 15 seconds.

When the students came back inside, their classmates gasped to see that the UV light-sensitive discs had turned purple, except for the spots where Schilling applied sunscreen. Even on a cloudy day, the sun's rays went to work almost immediately - teaching the students a lesson Schilling, the wife of Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, hopes they won't soon forget.

"We have to teach our kids to protect them," she said. "Schools teach you how to put good things in your body, but not how to take care of the biggest organ of your body."

Schilling founded the SHADE Foundation in 2002, after she received a diagnosis of melanoma the prior year. It works in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency's SunWise program, which provides teachers with lesson plans and other tools for teaching sun safety to children from kindergarten through eighth grade. Schilling said she is trying to make practicing sun safety come as naturally to children as brushing their teeth or wearing a seatbelt.

Schilling, 39, grew up in Dundalk, where she attended Dundalk High School. She worked in television production for Home Team Sports, where she met Curt Schilling, who then pitched for the Orioles.

She said she had no idea sun exposure could hurt her during her youth, when she caught rays on her parents' roof in Dundalk or the beach in Ocean City.

"Not until I was even in my 20s did I ever hear anybody say the sun was bad for you," she said. "It just wasn't talked about."

The EPA launched the SunWise program in 1999 as a way to help kids reduce their lifetime risk of skin cancer, said Drusilla Hufford, director of the agency's stratospheric protection division. She said the program is now in more than 14,000 schools covering every state.

Hufford said doctors are seeing melanoma in increasingly younger patients. Schilling said she attended the funeral of a 23-year-old woman who died of skin cancer last year.

The SHADE Foundation conducts free melanoma screenings and has provided shade covers for playgrounds at more than 100 elementary schools. It also runs an annual poster contest. This year's national winner will get a free trip to Disney World.

Schilling gave out UV-sensitive wristbands and sunscreen in UV-sensitive bottles to each student. At one point, she called two students up to the front, giving a young boy an Orioles baseball cap to wear and a young girl a Red Sox floppy hat. After Schilling taught the students that the floppy hat provided better sun protection, she told the volunteers they could keep the hats.

She then revealed that they were autographed by her husband, much to the kids' delight.

Shonda Schilling runs marathons to raise money for the foundation and, she said, to show people they can practice sun safety and still take part in healthy outdoor activity.

"There's days where you go, `I'm so tired, why am I doing this?' because five girls just walked out of a tanning booth," she said. "But then somebody walks up to you at a game with tears in their eyes. So many people I met were just pleading with me to make people understand."

andrew.schaefer@baltsun.com

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