A Gifford Medical Center doctor is spending his summer giving free skin cancer screenings around the state in an effort to detect and treat potential skin cancers early.
Dr. Ovleto Ciccarelli says the program is possible because skin cancer screenings are relatively fast and easy, and he says early detection could ultimately lead to reductions in health care spending.
“Because all it takes is a practiced eye from a nurse, physician’s assistant and/or doctor, and a little bit of time,” Ciccarelli said in an interview Wednesday. “Doesn’t cost a lot of money. Does no harm.”
From 2010 through 2014, Vermont had the second-highest rate of new cases of the skin cancer melanoma, according to the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only Utah had a higher rate of new diagnoses during that period.
Despite the high rates, Ciccarelli said skin isn’t often a focus of primary care doctors.
“Sometimes the patients visit in cold times when it’s hard for them to completely get undressed. Sometimes patients don’t realize them because nobody can see their backs or other hard-to-visualize places,” he said.
Ciccarelli said holding the screenings in the summer makes it easier to check for skin cancer because patients often arrive in light clothing.
“What we wanted to do was see if we could make an impact by catching what we would call ‘funny bumps’ or ‘spots’ before they became skin cancer,” he said.
Early detection is important in skin cancer, which can become dramatically more deadly with just a few millimeters of growth.
“For melanoma, a thin melanoma is 0.75 millimeters [into the skin],” Ciccarelli said, “and that’s – I hate to use the word, but we’ll say curable.”
Ciccarrelli said detecting a cancerous growth at that size means the patient is most likely to ultimately die from something other than skin cancer.
“But a thick melanoma is only 4 millimeters,” he went on. “That’s like a sixteenth of an inch, so it’s a really small amount. So what we try and do … we try to find, for lack of a better term, funny moles – moles that are just looking a little peculiar to the trained eye.”
He said the screenings have been a success and about a half-dozen abnormal moles and other spots have been removed.
“If we call those funny spots [now], those will never grow up to be anything,” he said.
Similar interventions on a wide scale could help save on health care costs, Ciccarelli said, by reducing the number of patients in need of more intensive cancer treatments.
The screening program is in its first year, but Ciccarelli is optimistic that it will continue in future summers.
“The people on the board of directors were quite pleased,” he said, “so I wouldn’t be surprised if we have another go-around come warm weather next year.”