Daughters death turns Tiburon mother into cancer activist

Once Charlie Guild was diagnosed with melanoma, she kept saying that it must have happened for a reason.

“When this was over, she intended to go out and do something about this disease,” said Charlie’s mother, Valerie. But Charlie didn’t get that chance. She died at age 25 in 2003.

Spurred by her daughter’s death, Valerie Guild has started the Charlie Guild Melanoma Foundation.

“She didn’t leave me with much of a choice,” she said.

Carolyn Guild, known to everyone as Charlie, spent her teen years in Mill Valley. She was president of the Marin chapter of B’nai B’rith Girls, and won BBYO’s national Most Actively Concerned Teen Award in 1993.

She started an Amnesty International chapter at her high school. She began a petition to push the United Nations to consider rape a war crime in the Bosnian War. After she collected signatures, she forwarded the petition to her congresswoman, Lynn Woolsey, who then circulated a similar petition in Congress. It was later passed by the United Nations.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Guild told the Jewish Bulletin in a 1993 article. “We were just a bunch of high school students … This is going to have a lasting impact on me to know I can make a difference.”

After graduating from Brown University, Charlie found a job on Wall Street. It was meant to be a break before beginning medical school. When she complained of chest pain, she went to a doctor, who took a chest X-ray that revealed nothing.

Six months later, the pain returned. It was more severe this time, and a CAT scan revealed that she had melanoma.

“Typically once they diagnose it, it’s in the later stages, and the average length of time is six months, so it’s not a nice disease,” said Valerie Guild, who now lives in Tiburon.

Charlie had nine and a half months before she died.

When caught in the late stages, there is no treatment for melanoma, which is the only kind of cancer that can spread through the skin.

Guild said her daughter did not spend any more time in the sun than most kids her age, but that they had no awareness about the damage that excessive sun can do.

“There’s a misconception that melanoma happens to sunbathers or people who go to tanning salons a lot,” she said. “That’s not to say that it

doesn’t happen to them, but one burn between ages 0 to 18 is enough to increase your chances of getting it by 100 percent.”

After Charlie died, her mother took a leave of absence from the company she ran with her husband — providing financial, printing and binding assistance to law firms — to research existing melanoma foundations. While she found a handful, there was nothing national, so she decided to start one herself.

Her older daughter, a lawyer, has taken her place so she can devote her efforts to the foundation full time.

Since beginning the Charlie Guild Melanoma Foundation — www.charlie.org — Guild has already gotten two states to pass legislation requiring sun safety to be taught in grades kindergarten through 12. California and 10 more states are in process. She is also working on a bill that will require the licensing and regulation of tanning salons.

Melanoma is the most prevalent type of cancer among those in the 20-to-30 age group, she said, and usually stems from too much sun exposure before age 18. Guild said that it often affects the middle- to upper classes, since those most likely to get melanoma are not out in the sun very much, but then get high exposure on a family ski trip or beach trip during their winter vacation. Workers who are outside every day for long periods are at lower risk, she said.

“Last year AIDS research got $6 billion and [melanoma] got $40 million from the government,” said Guild. “There really is almost no money out there for melanoma research, and one of the problems is when you don’t have research money, you don’t tend to attract researchers.”

She is also trying to establish a list of “Charlie’s Friends,” who will get an e-mail whenever legislation is pending, so they in turn can send an e-mail to their congressional representatives.

Guild is also working on getting BBYO to take melanoma awareness on as an issue.

“I’ve asked them if they can present this in front of all the various chapters, because these are the kids at risk.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."