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Here at ASF, we’re ringing in July by relaunching “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

With the Fourth of July weekend on the horizon, people all across the U.S. are preparing for a weekend of sun-soaked outdoor activities, from picnics to barbeques to baseball games.

Thanks to increased awareness about the risks of sun exposure, many people will slather on the SPF 30.

But disparities persist when it comes to skin cancer prevention and treatment in communities of color: though “the five-year survival rate from melanoma is lower in African Americans (58.8%) than Caucasians (84.%), and the incidence of melanoma among Hispanics over the past 15 years has risen to rates comparable among whites,” many African American and Hispanic individuals believe that their skin cancer risk is lower than that of Caucasians.

Schweitzer Fellow Busayo Obayan is doing something about it. In fact, the Boston University School of Medicine student authored the newly adopted AMA policy on skin cancer prevention in communities of color from which the above statistics are taken (click here and scroll down to “Skin Cancer Prevention in Communities of Color”).

For her Schweitzer project, Obayan is partnering with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to develop a targeted skin cancer prevention education program, and working with the Melanoma Foundation of New England to conduct outreach events and screenings in communities of color. Read on for a glimpse into her motivations and goals in addressing this important issue.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

One of the issues I am most passionately involved in is skin cancer prevention. I have previously analyzed issues with passing legislation to restrict youth access to tanning beds, which are linked to skin cancer. As I researched the literature on policy involving skin cancer awareness and education among persons of color, I was concerned to find little to no existing policy pertaining to these populations.

One of the reasons this seemed a particularly important issue to address was because the death rate from melanoma—the skin cancer that causes 75% of mortality from skin cancer—is significantly higher in populations of color (African-American, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic) than in Caucasian populations. As I delved into the research, it was apparent that public health outreach and efforts to increase awareness in these populations was a component that many in the field consider lacking. I believed that with my public health and medical background, I could potentially make an impact.

I decided to create a resolution targeting public health outreach efforts to these communities, and in June 2010, this became AMA (American Medical Association) policy. The resolution passed at the AMA house of delegates session with support from the American Association of Dermatology (AAD). According to the resolution, the AMA will support public health outreach efforts in minority communities and work with the National Latino Medical Association, National Minority Association, and the American Academy of Dermatology to address this issue.

Hopefully, collaboration between these major professional organizations will reduce in the disparity in skin cancer mortality rates among persons of color. Everyone should be wearing a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, reapplying every 2 hours, avoiding the sun during peak hours of 12 noon – 4pm, wearing sunglasses, and seeking shade. Of course, it’s important not to forget to take a vitamin with at least 800IU of vitamin D.

I hope to disseminate this message to all Boston communities via my Schweitzer project.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

I truly hope that my service impacts not only the community, but health care professionals as well. I think one of the biggest misconceptions among persons of color is that they are at very low risk for skin cancer, but in several studies (particularly in California and Florida), Hispanics have been found to have the same annual incidence of skin cancer as Caucasians. Also, African-Americans continue to have a significantly higher rate of death from skin cancer than Caucasians. I believe that by maintaining this project as an annual community service event with many medical students and physicians involved, we can begin to disband this myth.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

We live in a truly great country. This is such a great country that issues such as sanitation and diarrhea, which result in high mortalities in other countries, are not our most pressing issues. I think the most important issue in our country is waste. The issue of waste is not just environmental, it also has a monetary component—especially in the medical field.

We all need to take a look around us and figure out how to minimize waste. Whether it’s by recycling, buying biodegradable or environmentally friendly products, or not asking our physicians for the most cost-effective tests, instead of the most expensive ones.

Health care professionals and insurance companies can play a part by being transparent about prices for services and lab tests, and giving patients information about which tests are most accurate and their relative prices and accuracy. I believe when all involved parties are aware of what is truly at stake and the cost of living future generations may have to bear, we may have a chance at sustaining a lasting change in behavior.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

The level of altruism, dedication, and true happiness from serving others that I’ve found in the other Fellows. They are truly amazing people, and I’m lucky to have them as my support.

Shortly after my acceptance into the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program, I lost a dear mentor and friend. I have received such supportive messages and words of encouragement from the Fellows. It’s such a nice surprise to be surrounded with people who are so caring and giving.

We have had gatherings to update each other on our successes and failures, and the other Fellows are so supportive. They always give me a new perspective by which to see an issue or a new way to address a problem. I wish I could take them with me throughout life.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Having been accepted as a Schweitzer Fellow so recently, the most simplistic way to describe it would be as “a home away from home.” My fellow participants are people who are trying to do the same thing I am: leave the world a little better than we left it. It certainly helps to bolster my confidence, passion, and efforts to have such amazing human beings as my peers. I am blessed and I choose to live my life by continuing to give back. I know the other Fellows feel the same.

Busayo Obayan is a Schweitzer Fellow in Boston, MA. Click here to read more about The Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Obayan it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Obayan’s efforts to address skin cancer prevention in communities of color, click here.

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