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Worcester firefighter diagnosed with cancer following free screening

“The earlier you find any of this stuff the better,” Firefighter Ryan Kelley shared after UMass doctors spotted basal cell skin cancer


Worcester firefighter Ryan Kelley was diagnosed with skin cancer following a DetecTogether screening last year.

Photo/Kiernan Dunlop/MassLive

By Kiernan Dunlop

WORCESTER, Mass. — Worcester firefighter Ryan Kelley had a scab on his temple for two years that never really healed.

He hadn’t done anything about it, when his whole truck decided to attend a free cancer screening held by DetecTogether and UMass Memorial Health at Polar Park last year.

When doctors from UMass saw the scab, they told Kelley it looked like basal cell skin cancer. He worked with them to schedule a biopsy for the next morning.

The biopsy revealed it was a tumor and it was skin cancer.

They scheduled the surgery to remove the tumor a month later and now Kelly is cancer-free and goes for cancer screenings every six months.

Had they not had the free screening, Kelley said, he would probably still have a tumor.

Kelley was at Polar Park Tuesday for the second cancer screening event DetecTogether and UMass Memorial, along with UMass Chan Medical School, were putting on for firefighters.

In the US, people have a 40% chance of being diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, for firefighters that risk goes up 9%, according to Tricia Scannell Laursen, president and CEO of DetecTogether.

DetecTogether is a Westborough-based nonprofit that was formed 13 years ago by Jim and Nancy Coghlin in honor of a friend of theirs with the goal of teaching people how to identify the early warning signs of cancer.

Coghlin said he told their family they had a calling to help people learn how to detect cancer early and they had to do something.

Laursen said at last year’s screening she believes 115 firefighters were screened and 30 needed biopsies like Kelley, but due to patient privacy said she wasn’t aware how many of those biopsies resulted in a cancer diagnosis.

A DetecTogether screening helped detect a life-threatening case of melanoma in a friend of Kelley’s who he used to work with at the Wellesley Fire Department, he said.

“She had stage three or stage four melanoma, which was terrifying,” Kelley said, but now she’s in remission.

Kelley said he can’t be sure that his own case of cancer was tied to his job as a firefighter, but the tumor was right where the sweatband on his helmet sits, so any carcinogens that made their way onto his helmet while he was on the job likely were in contact with that spot.

“I could not stress nearly enough to everybody else that does this job to go get checked,” Kelley said. “It takes 10 minutes and the earlier you find any of this stuff the better.”

In addition to providing skin cancer screenings, the doctors and medical students from UMass Memorial and UMass Chan were asking firefighters about any potential symptoms for other cancers and their family history of cancer to determine their risk, according to Dr. Justin Maykel, Chief of Colorectal Surgery.

If it’s determined that there is a risk, Maykel said they would help the firefighters schedule the necessary doctor appointments for things like colonoscopies.

He called Tuesday’s event a one-stop shop.

He and the other healthcare providers were all volunteering their time at the event.

Christopher Fay, a medical student at UMass Chan who worked to get free sunscreen dispensers installed across Worcester after his father’s cancer diagnosis, was volunteering at Tuesday’s event as well.

“I’m particularly energized by the UMass Skin Cancer Screening at Polar Park because I know these firefighters are someone’s loved one, too,” Fay said. “I know this event makes a real difference because firefighters have a 21% increased risk of melanoma and it’s crucial to spot skin cancer early when it’s easiest to cure.”

In addition to the screenings, DetecTogether was also teaching their 3 Steps Detect Method to help identify the risk of cancer early.

The steps include: know your “great” — creating what a benchmark of what normal is for your health; use the two-week rule — if you notice a subtle change in your normal or “great” that lasts more than two weeks its time to look at what’s causing that change; and share with your doctor — make a list of anything you’ve noticed that’s changed and share it with your doctor.

Deputy Chief Adam Roche said Tuesday’s screening falls in line with the Worcester Fire Department’s proactive approach of early detection among its members.

“It’s great, most people don’t have a dermatologist,” Roche said and with the elevated risk of cancer among firefighters, a sponsored screening event is “awesome.”

He said if the event can detect cancer early in just one person, it’s a win.

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