Patrol at Pier 60
By Vicki Jackson
Photo by Lanny Jackson
On a perfect Clearwater Beach Saturday, physicians and other trained professionals from the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa conducted their annual Mole Patrol at the pavilion at Pier 60. For over a decade, such events have served to provide the community with free skin cancer screenings. Our own beach lifeguards were at the front of the line on August 14th.
I asked Dr. Vernon K. Sondak, Cutaneous Oncology Department Chair, what he thought about when he saw all those people baking on the beach. "I have job security for a long time," he replied. "The big reason we come is not to scare people, but to educate them. The sun is not people's friend. Melanoma is very dangerous and a huge problem, and has been responsible for thousands of deaths. In the United States, Florida ranks Number Two, with more than 1500 new cases diagnosed each year (just) at Moffitt." Although California is Number One, they have a larger population.
The physician warned, "It's not just individuals with fair skin who are at risk in this day and age and climate, whether from changes in the ozone layer and increased ultraviolet rays, or as a result of more exposure due to our changing recreation habits. Most people get most of their lifetime sun exposure in their first eighteen years."
Dr. Sondak said he was drawn to his specialty by its unique challenges, as well as the continuity of care with his patients. Even with the level of cure now possible, most of them should commit to lifelong semi-annual examinations, as the disease can return. While skin cancers can be disfiguring, they're not always dangerous-if caught early. Toward prevention, he stressed the importance of sun safety and encouraged the use of protective clothing. He led by example, obvious in his attire of long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and a full-brimmed hat.
Assisting in the evaluation and education of concerned beach goers was first-time participant, Dr. Brooke Walls. The fair-skinned resident physician is doing research this year, and was motivated by her mother's experience with skin cancer. She urged the use of lots of sunscreen, wearing a hat, and being especially careful about being out in the sun in the middle of the day. She cautioned that sitting under an umbrella is not effective against the damaging rays that reflect off the sand.
Also on hand were two local melanoma survivors, together with their informative exhibit. Steven Sommerville, 21, was first diagnosed with the disease at age 14. His father had noticed a suspicious mole near the boy's right ear, while cutting his hair. As Steven described his injected radiation treatment and subsequent surgery on eight small lymph nodes, only with concentrated effort could I discern the insignificant scar that remained. He has visited his dermatologist three times in each of the seven years since. He said, "The sun can be your friend, but you have to be careful."
Dessie Baker was diagnosed as a young adult, after her mother noticed a tiny pitch-black freckle on the back of her upper arm. Some time after the surgery, another spot behind her ear appeared. She felt fortunate to have found each of the melanomas in an early stage, and is checked by her doctor twice a year. As a teenager she ignored the warnings posted at the tanning salons she frequented, and continued to apply their non-protective lotion that opened her pores for maximum exposure to the intense ultraviolet rays. Sadly, she revealed that those same friends who saw her stitches, and watched her suffer through the cancer, still think and act as if "it can't happen to me."
Dr. Mary Lien, University of Florida dermatologist, who specializes in melanoma, shared that sentiment. She's worked at the public service screening events for several years attempting to educate the public about melanoma, and the use of protective measures. She's been amazed to discover, despite all the information available, "There are still people out there who still choose to take risks. Although people seem to have a greater protective attitude and are diligent about applying sunscreen to their children, somehow it doesn't translate to the adult-they're in denial." Her priority is educating the public about the danger, and to raise awareness. She advised the use of the equivalent of one to two shot glasses of (UVA/UVB) sunscreen, with frequent re-applications.
Along with personal skin screening findings, samples of such sunscreen and protective lip balm were given to participants. Also available was information about a helpful new website where, Dr. Sondak relayed; people can view pictures and even upload their own photographs. A representative said www.SkinofMine.com now offers auto-assessment tools for monitoring an individual's skin and moles between regular doctor visits.
A Moffitt spokesperson reported that, during the six-hour event, 216 people took advantage of the opportunity to have their skin professionally examined this year at the pier. If you missed it, specific information about cancer and future events may be found at www.InsideMoffitt.com.
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