The unseasonably warm autumn weather will provide an ideal setting for local fundraising walks over the next few weekends in Tucson.

Whether you choose to champion cancer causes or support those with special needs, you will find ample opportunity to combine philanthropy with physical activity — and get your fall fix at the same time.

The fun starts Saturday with the 8th annual Melanoma Walk at the University of Arizona mall.

The event kicks off with free skin cancer screenings on a first-come, first-served basis from 2 to 4 p.m., followed by a family friendly walk and other festivities.

“We walk three laps around the mall: One to honor those who have lost their lives to melanoma, one to honor those fighting and living with melanoma, and the third lap for hope toward the future through prevention,” said Denise Spartonos, community outreach coordinator for the UA Skin Cancer Institute.

“At the Skin Cancer Institute we help treat patients and provide education to the community because we want to prevent and cure skin cancer. The best way to prevent it is to teach kids to use sunscreen at an early age and raise awareness about sun safety,” she added.

Spartonos said skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the country, with more than 3.5 million new cases diagnosed annually. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer: 87,000 new cases will be diagnosed nationwide this year and someone dies every 52 minutes from the disease.

The Skin Cancer Institute is trying to change that through education programs such as Project SASS (Students Are Sun Safe), which trains UA students in sun safety and skin cancer prevention. The UA students then provide outreach to schools.

In another effort, the Protect Your Skin program supplies kits comprised of dispensers with quality sunscreen, signage and information to local schools, recreation areas and businesses.

As a take-away, Spartonos emphasized that sun safety and early detection save lives.

She reminded people to perform monthly skin self-exams, to visit their health-care providers for annual skin checks, and to remember to apply (and re-apply) quality sunscreen.

Ovarian cancer walk

Tucsonans can put sunscreen to good use Sunday morning as well at the Second Annual Run/Walk to Break the Silence on Ovarian Cancer.

The event seeks to raise $30,000 for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, but if organizer Tom Dixon’s wife Meredith Mitstifer has her way, it will raise “a billion dollars.”

Mitstifer, a 15-year survivor of ovarian cancer, was diagnosed at age 30 when she was four months pregnant. She started chemotherapy after delivering her son.

“It was a double whammy — having an infant while going through chemo for a year, but now I am 15 years out and there is no evidence of the disease. We really don’t have remission and there is no cure and no test for the disease, so awareness and advocacy of your own body and any symptoms are the best tools we have,” said Mitstifer, a national board member for the coalition.

Unfortunately, the major symptoms — bloating, frequent urination, feeling full quickly and extreme fatigue — are often vague and can be attributed to other conditions. Symptoms can also include bowel issues, abdominal pain and digestive problems.

“These may be symptoms that many women experience every month, but if they persist for three or more weeks, you need to seek consultation with a medical professional and ask for a thorough evaluation to rule out ovarian cancer,” Mitstifer said.

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Mitstifer, Dixon and other volunteers hope the walk will provide support for those living with ovarian cancer while promoting awareness and funding research. Ultimately, they also want to shatter the silence surrounding the disease.

“Ovarian cancer is known as ‘the disease that whispers’ because the symptoms are so vague. That is why we need to raise awareness and try to break the silence,” Mitstifer said.

Down syndrome buddy walk

Facilitation of networks and support is a primary goal of the 15th Annual Tucson BuddyWalk to benefit the Southern Arizona Network for Down Syndrome, according to Allyson Schug. Schug is co-chairing the walk with her husband, Kasy, and Chelsea Hansen.

Down syndrome is the most common genetic chromosomal disorder, impacting one in nearly 700 children according to the National Institutes of Health. The condition varies among individuals, resulting in lifelong intellectual disability and development delays. Heart and gastrointestinal disorders and other medical problems are also common.

Schug said the Buddy Walk and Southern Arizona group provided a vital network when she and Kasy moved to Tucson in 2011 with their son, Jacob, who has Down syndrome.

“Because Jacob wasn’t born here, we were not automatically integrated into early intervention services and by going to the Buddy Walk, we realized where we needed to start. I could ask questions and they could point me where to go and provide me with other resources if they didn’t have the answers ... it is kind of a one-stop shop, which is a really big benefit,” said Schug, who emphasized the importance of early interventions to optimize quality of life for children with special needs.

The organization also provides assistance with respite care for families of those with Down syndrome, as well as advocacy, education and support services. The Give It Back! Program offers sponsorship and reimbursement for a variety of activities, goods, programs and services that enhance quality of life for individuals with Down syndrome and their families.

Schug and her co-chairs seek to raise at least $100,000 at the upcoming walk to facilitate services through the all-volunteer network.

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at