Raising Awareness of Melanoma in Farmworker Communities

May 27, 2016 1:00 PM ET

The American Academy of Dermatology has designated May as National Melanoma Skin Cancer Prevention Month to raise awareness about skin cancer and increase the chances of early detection and treatment. The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation supports innovative community-based programs that address inequities in cancer treatment, care and support for low income and medically underserved populations.

In the small agricultural community of Fallbrook, California, Maricella Lopez is a familiar face among Latino farmworkers. For the past seven years, she has worked as a lider comunitario, or community health worker, leading focus groups and providing health education about HIV/AIDS, diabetes and oral health.

Through a program being developed by Farmworker Justice in partnership with two community organizations in California and Florida, Maricella will soon meet with farmworkers and their families to talk about the risks of skin cancer and the benefits of screening and treatment for the disease. For her, the mission is personal. Not only did she spend four years as a farmworker, but her husband is currently employed in the fields.

Every year, upwards of 5.4 million cases of non-melamona skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S., more than the number of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer cases combined.

Since more than 90 percent of skin cancer diagnoses are associated with exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun, people who work outdoors – such as farmworkers – are at particularly high risk. Studies confirm that farmworkers are at additional risk because of their exposure to pesticides, making them twice as likely to develop melanoma.

“The average workers spend long hours in the open sun and don’t have basic education about skin cancer and how to prevent it or access screening,” Maricella says. “I let them know that I understand their situation from firsthand experience and want to share my knowledge about skin cancer and prevention with them.”

The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation has provided funding for Farmworker Justice to develop a culturally competent community mobilization program to raise skin cancer awareness among migrant farmworker populations and provide screening and care by bringing together farmworkers, grower-employees, community leaders, primary care and cancer care healthcare providers and community-based organizations to reach out to 2,000 farmworkers and their families. Nationwide, migrant farmworkers and their families number approximately 4.5 million and play a critical role in the health of all as growers of fruits and vegetables.

Farmworker Justice has partnered with two community-based organizations -- Vista Community Clinic in North San Diego County, Maricella’s employer, and Farmworker Association of Florida in Homestead – that will help build capacity and develop relationships with local collaborators, including comprehensive cancer centers, to provide the specialized care patients may need.

Maricella and nine other lideres comunitarios engaged with the project are key to connecting with their communities. They understand the challenges farmworkers face – taking time off from work and finding childcare -- and will base outreach activities on the farmworkers’ schedules, planning events and screenings on evenings and weekends.

Lideres comunitarios are trusted members of the community, often sharing the same language and cultural traditions as the families they interact with in their outreach communities,” says Carlos Ugarte, director, Health Programs, Farmworker Justice. “They have credibility within the community and people feel comfortable with them.”

In addition to serving the skin cancer prevention needs of farmworkers, the project will raise awareness among local, state and federal decision-makers to advocate for changes that better address the challenges farmworkers face in receiving timely and quality skin cancer prevention services. Importantly, Farmworker Justice has engaged the National Institute for Occupational Health & Safety to assist with the evaluation and sharing lessons learned.

To learn more about Bristol-Myers Squibb, go to www.bms.com.