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Former Miss Utah Natalie Johnson is a co-founder of The Cancer Crusaders. She spoke at a U.S. dermatology convention in New York on Monday.

At 25 years old, Natalie Johnson has already dealt with the death of a loved one, life-changing research and being the keynote speaker at a national convention. And it's just the beginning.

The co-founder of Utah Cancer Crusaders and former Miss Utah 2002-03, Johnson has turned her life around to focus on spreading the word about skin cancer and how to prevent it.

And May 2 found her in New York, telling her story to those gathered for The American Academy of Dermatology's semiannual conference.

Six years ago, Johnson's 21-year-old brother, Eric, died after two months of chemotherapy for a malignant melanoma, or skin cancer. After that, she started researching, learning everything she could about the preventable disease.

Johnson, a Brigham Young University graduate, worked with various organizations before she met Danielle White, a Utah Valley State College graduate, who was also working with cancer education and prevention. Together, the two created The Cancer Crusaders Organization and are now focusing their energies on educating the younger generation.

"Typically young adults don't want to talk about cancer," White said. "It's not something they want to deal with."

But it's something statistics say they will have to.

Skin cancer affects almost 1 million Americans each year, and the American Cancer Society predicts another 59,600 Americans will be diagnosed with a melanoma in 2005, according to their Web site. Yet, unlike other forms of the illness, skin cancer is avoidable.

"This shouldn't be such a global epidemic," White said. "It's so preventable."

White and Johnson travel to schools and present seminars, showcasing their "Only Skin Deep?" presentation. It's a chance to teach the college-age demographic they're not immune, Johnson said.

"The mindset we deal with in this younger generation is 'this isn't going to happen to me, I'll deal with this later on,' " she said. "They (teens) can be taking steps now and making lifestyle changes that will greatly affect their chances (of avoiding cancer)."

As part of the education process, Johnson said she also realized the need for a visual symbol to represent skin cancer awareness. So she designed an orange ribbon, similar to other cancer awareness ribbons, which features a yellow sun rising in the loop.

Because of their dedication, both Johnson and White were invited to become members of the National Coalition for Sun Safety, a small group under the direction of the dermatology academy. They will work with doctors and health educators to increase awareness and raise necessary funds for research.

Such efforts are definitely needed in Utah. Although people are aware of the disease, many are hesitant to make the necessary lifestyle changes, White said.

"I believe that we all know what cancer is," White said. "(But) how do we get people to care enough to change their behaviors now so they can . . . decrease their likeliness of getting cancer in the future?"

Utah residents can protect themselves by wearing a hat when going outside as well as slathering on the sunscreen, White said. Apply it 30 minutes before going out and again every hour if spending all day in the sun.

Regular health screenings are also needed to check for potential problems. A free screening will be available on Saturday, May 21, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, 801-581-6365, and the Central Utah Clinic at 1055 N., 500 West, Building A, in Provo, 801-429-8012. Those interested in the free screenings should call ahead for appointments. For more information about Cancer Crusaders, visit www.cancercrusaders.org.

E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com