Orioles team dermatologist Dr. Ken Wasserman co-founded Major League Baseball's skin cancer screening initiative 18 years ago. Sponsored by MLB, the Players Association and the American Academy of Dermatology, the Play Sun Smart program has conducted more than 40,000 skin cancer screenings of players, coaches, general managers, announcers, ballpark employees and police since 1999.
"We do screenings at all 30 ballparks," Wasserman said. "Year after year, we see the same faces. The goal of the program is to screen the players and raise the public awareness of skin cancer. Many of the lesions we take off are not cancerous, but it's better to get them early. We've discovered hundreds of malignancies."
A lifelong baseball fan, Wasserman uses the pitch-out metaphor to stress the need for screening.
"The catcher calls a pitch-out because a runner might be stealing," he said. "The pitcher throws over and the runner is not going. Every once in a while, you catch one. We see a bunch of negatives for every positive."
In February of this year, Wasserman won the prestigious James R. Andrews Award for excellence in sports medicine. The award is given annually by the American Sports Medicine Institute for an individual or organization that has advanced the field of research, medical treatment, injury prevention or on-field care for baseball.
"There's a huge need for skin care in all sports," said Wasserman, citing the U.S. Open tennis championships and golf tournaments. "One in five Americans will get skin cancer. Screenings save lives."
Assisted by Jackie Robinson's daughter, Sharon, and Lou Melendez in the commissioner's office, MLB's screening program began in 1999 and received national attention in 2004 when then-commissioner Bud Selig received treatment for a malignant melanoma on his forehead and then became a national spokesperson.
"He had a terrible scare, and his story appeared in
The New York Times," Wasserman said. "He'd supported the program before but really began pushing it after he himself was diagnosed."
The program has matured into an effective method for early detection and has come to be known as Play Sun Smart. Wasserman recalls a police officer who was screened at Shea Stadium in New York and returned to thank his doctors for identifying an early malignancy.
"He came in a year after his screening in tears and hugged all of us," Wasserman said. "He had the kind of skin cancer that would have been fatal. He happened to be on duty the day we were doing the screenings. I started getting teary-eyed."
A leading dermatologist in the Philadelphia area, Wasserman is at Camden Yards every seven-to-10 days doing screenings for the Orioles and dealing with skin-related conditions, such as heat rash, insect bites, dermatitis, planter's warts and poison ivy.
"I see a lot of people," he said. "I take care of the coaches. They've been out in the sun longer, in the days before sunblock and sun protection. I screen the broadcasters -- [Gary] Thorne, [Jim] Palmer and [Rick] Dempsey -- and they talk about it on the air. The last thing players see now before going on the field is a table full of sunblock creams and sprays."
Wasserman has served in various roles during his past 15 years as team dermatologist for the Orioles.
"I love baseball, and I love dermatology," Wasserman said in his acceptance speech after receiving the award. "Very few people in this world get to do one of the things they love, and I get to do both."
Issue 234: June 2017