From bronze windsurfers to cream-colored infants, Sacramentans of all shades and ages withstood the hot black concrete of a Rite Aid parking lot Tuesday to get a free skin cancer screening from a mobile dermatology clinic.
The 38-foot recreational vehicle parked at the Elk Grove pharmacy for the day was part of the Skin Cancer Foundation’s “Road to Healthy Skin” tour, which has been traveling the country for months in an effort to catch America’s most common cancer in its early stages. Sacramento is one of more than 50 stops the bus will make in 17 states.
About two dozen people showed up before the 10 a.m. start time Tuesday, with an estimated 75 rolling in throughout the day, for an appointment with one of two dermatologists. Participants got a head-to-toe look-over in one of two private exam rooms. The dermatologists checked participants for blemishes and then sent them off with educational materials and concerns to pass on to a physician, if necessary.
While some attendees showed up worried about long-ignored birthmarks or skin tags, others, like Greg Fletcher, 63, were just looking for more information.
“I’m a sun guy, a beach bum,” said Fletcher, who windsurfs about twice a week. “I just want to know what to look for. My general practitioner said just wait for something to start bleeding, but that’s probably not the best stage.”
Inside the RV, foundation posters preached warnings like “Want a killer tan? You might just get one” and “Let your inner glow glow – get out of the sun.”
Dr. Andrea Willey, a Sacramento skin cancer specialist who volunteered for the afternoon shift on the bus, said skin cancer is preventable and 100 percent treatable if caught early. Though most people get worried when they see a big black mole, skin cancer can happen below the surface or in a flatter, paler form, she said.
People most at risk for skin cancer include those who spend a lot of time in the sun and people who use tanning booths. While fair, redheaded people are traditionally the most at-risk group for this cancer, the U.S. population has become so heterogeneous that even those with darker skin can have a genetic disposition for the disease, Willey said.
“We just as a society spend a lot of our leisure time in the sun,” she said. “That’s changed in the days since my mother was young. We’re a more affluent society and people can afford more vacation. Those factors, combined with the ozone, are increasing the risk.”
The National Climatic Data Center lists Sacramento as one of the 10 sunniest cities in the United States.
Willey said that while outdoor exercise is healthy, protective clothing and sunscreen are always required. Any vitamin D the body needs can be easily acquired through nutrition, or after just five minutes in the sun, she said.
Mother and daughter Beth and Grace Woll drove to the bus from their home in Rocklin. Grace Woll, an 18-year-old graduate of Victory High School, said she has visited tanning salons and used tanning sprays. Her mother, 43, said it was typical of her generation to put on baby oil and lie out in the sun.
“I know it’s curable if it’s detected early and it can be hard to detect, so it’s good to have someone check,” said Beth Woll. “It’s more common than people think it is.”
There are three main types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal cell is the most common type of cancer but almost never spreads past the tumor site. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer and can lead to serious illness and death.
The average annual incidence rate of melanoma in Sacramento County is 26.3 out of 100,000 for men and 14.5 for women, according to 2004-08 data from the California Cancer Registry. That’s compared to 26.3 for men and 15.4 for women on the state level.
The line for Tuesday’s clinic was so long the tour staff had to assign numbers to those waiting and ask them to come back later. While there were two exam rooms on the vehicle, there was only one volunteer dermatologist per shift. Event Manager Chris Alvarez said they were able to see about 10 people every hour.
Some in the crowd voiced frustration with the service, but Fair Oaks resident Jamie Cortan said it was worth the wait for the uninsured. A full-body checkup would cost her hundreds of dollars at a doctor’s office, she said.
“I’m basically saving $50 an hour standing here,” she said. “These are things you have to do when you don’t have insurance. I look three times a year and try to see when these guys are coming.”
Since the tour began in 2008, more than 18,000 people have received free screenings. Dermatologists have detected more than 7,000 suspected pre-cancers and cancers, including more than 300 suspected melanomas, said Emily Prager, Skin Cancer Foundation spokeswoman.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed from a previous version to correctly describe Dr. Andrea Willey as a Sacramento skin cancer specialist.