Former Steelers coach Cowher urges melanoma screenings


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Bill Cowher, whose wife died from melanoma in 2010, knows how dangerous skin cancer can be.

On Tuesday, the former Steelers coach helped launch Melanoma Exposed, an educational campaign to encourage more people to get screened for the form of skin cancer, which annually causes 5,800 deaths among men and 3,000 among women in the United States, according to the campaign's website.

"Having lost my wife to melanoma about two years ago, I saw how devastating it can be and how quickly it can happen," said Mr. Cowher in a phone interview. Kaye Cowher was 54 when she died from skin cancer in her home state of North Carolina.

Now, her widower wants to make sure that all Americans -- and men in particular, since they are less likely to get screened and nearly twice as likely to die from the cancer -- take the same precautions that he and his three daughters now diligently take to protect against melanoma.

That means using sunscreen, wearing hats, conducting self-examinations and, perhaps most importantly, getting a visual screen.

"When it is caught early it is very treatable, but when it gets into your system, it's very fatal," Mr. Cowher said.

Every year, about 70,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the five-year survival rate for people whose melanoma is detected before it has spread to the lymph nodes is 98 percent.

But the percentage drops to 62 percent for melanoma that reaches the lymph nodes, and beyond that it drops to 15 percent.

The key to preventing deaths from melanoma is to encourage people -- especially those with risk factors such as light skin, family history, moles or previous cases of sunburn -- to examine their own skin and that of their loved ones for melanomas, said Elizabeth Hale, clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University.

Increasingly, she said, dermatologists are recommending an annual skin examination for everyone over age 18.

Mr. Cowher -- by speaking out about the importance of screening -- can get more people thinking about the need to get their skin checked, Dr. Hale said.

"We are just trying to make sure it doesn't happen to other people," Mr. Cowher said.

Men are a special target for the campaign's message about a proactive approach to skin cancer.

"Men are really a bit naive when it comes to their bodies," he said, and less likely than women to visit a doctor for a screening.

The campaign, which launched its website Tuesday, will hold its first free public skin screening at the Miami Dolphins' Sun Life Stadium in mid-June.

Other free screenings will be hosted by the New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens.

As the campaign grows, Mr. Cowher said he hopes every team in the NFL -- including the Steelers -- will host the screening sessions.

Details about the free screenings, as well as about how to conduct a self-examination and how to find a dermatologist, are available at www.MelanomaExposed.com.

Steelers - region

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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