By Susan Chon, MD, FAAD
For several years, I’ve helped to organize free skin cancer screenings sponsored by the American Academy of Dermatology’s screening program.
The screenings we organize are citywide in the Houston area and take place every May. We try to pick sites all over town, from the medical center downtown to outlying areas, as well as neighboring suburbs like the Woodlands, Katy, and Clear Lake. The screenings are completely run by volunteers. Hospitals and clinics donate the space, dermatologists volunteer their time and expertise, nurses volunteer for registration, and medical students come to help and learn about dermatology at the same time. Our outreach coordinator, Betty Spears, deserves recognition for her amazing efforts every year to make the screening successful.
For a month leading up to the event, we build awareness through the press and by posting ads on certain websites. We explain that while screening is essential for people who are fair and anyone working outdoors, every person should have a baseline screening to find out their risk level. This helps them know whether they need regular or more periodic screening.
For patients, the experience either reassures them that everything is okay, or it alerts them to the fact that they need to connect with a dermatologist in their area and have additional care or regular screenings.
Our screenings are held at 15-17 sites, and some sites screen several hundred people in one day. An individual screening is fairly quick but still very thorough. If we find anything suspicious, we give the patient a brochure listing the dermatologists throughout Houston.
We'll ask them where they live and direct them to the area that’s nearest to them. Patients without insurance can go to the county hospital, where they’ll receive quality care from the residents and faculty at dermatology department at the University of Texas – Houston. We also record basic demographic information so we can follow up with patients who need follow-up care.
The screenings benefit everyone involved. For patients, the experience either reassures them that everything is okay, or it alerts them to the fact that they need to connect with a dermatologist in their area for additional procedures or regular screenings. As we know, early diagnosis and treatment are critical for the best skin cancer treatment outcomes.
These events also offer a great opportunity to educate patients about skin cancer. There are still many people who don’t know what skin cancer is, what cancers look like, the signs to watch for, or that skin exams can detect cancer. We explain that, just like breast, prostate, colon, and other cancer screenings this is another regular screening they should have.
We give patients literature on skin cancer, sunscreen samples, and tips on protective clothing. We explain behaviors that can help protect them, and we tell them to avoid tanning booths.
For those who volunteer, coming to the site and working together bonds us in a new way. Even when I’m volunteering with colleagues I normally work with, we’re working together in a different spirit, and it deepens our friendships.
I do additional screenings year-round for various groups, and it’s so worthwhile. It’s critical for people with our skill set to volunteer in our communities and give back. In addition to detecting skin cancer and potentially saving the lives of some patients, there can be far-reaching effects downstream, which we might not see at the time. Patients who get screened can go on to tell other people about skin cancer, help them check themselves, or motivate them to get screened. More than simply a skin cancer screening, it’s an outreach and a way to educate your community.
Dr. Susan Chon is an associate professor in the Department of Dermatology at UT MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. She heads the skin cancer screening events and outreach programs at MD Anderson.
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