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West Virginia doctor raises skin cancer awareness

by PAUL LaPANN Parkersburg News and Sentinel on April 09, 2013 10:50 AM

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — Dr. Alex De Souza, of Spencer, is on a crusade to raise money and awareness about skin cancer.

De Souza recently returned from a 20-day, 10,000-mile helicopter trip, called “Flying to Cure on the Sunshine Road,” to nine U.S. states, nine Brazilian states and 13 countries to discuss skin fitness. He hopes to raise $1 million for the American Cancer Society for research by the end of the year.

Joining De Souza, a plastic surgeon and former medical director at Roane General Hospital, on the medical mission were Dr. Jaime Moraes, a dermatologist from Brazil, and pilot Libano Rezende, of Los Angeles.

The flight from Southern California, to the Caribbean islands and finally to De Souza’s hometown of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, was selected because of the areas’ notoriety as “hot spots” for skin cancer, De Souza said. The beaches of Santa Monica and Malibu, Calif., the Gulf of Mexico, Miami, The Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, St. Barts and South America were stops along the Sunshine Road for the trio, who all flew the helicopter.

Skin cancer, the most common of all cancers, kills a person every hour in the United States. It affects rich and poor, old and young, dark- and light-skinned people, De Souza said.

De Souza said he is bothered that skin cancer, unlike some other cancers, can be avoided by taking proper precautions, such as staying out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and wearing sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats.

People know they should protect themselves from the harmful rays of the sun but often ignore the risks in search of a golden tan, De Souza said. Tourists at resorts around the world are some of the worse culprits when it comes to disregarding the hazards of excessive tanning, he said.

De Souza noted that West Virginia and Belo Horizonte, although separated by thousands of miles, have high rates of skin cancer, while the desert around Las Vegas has a lower incidence of skin cancer. People living in the desert communities of Nevada and Arizona wear clothing, hats and shoes that block the sun, he said.

De Souza, who said he has operated on skin cancer patients for many years, is pleased that Hollywood celebrities are speaking out about having cancer.

The doctors interviewed Amazon tribal members in the rain forest who said they were worried about cancer but did not wear sunblock or clothing to protect themselves from the sun.

De Souza talked to a pilot in South America who did not wear sunblock even though he flew at a high elevation where the damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun are the strongest. They spent a day at one of the leading cancer hospitals in the world — the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston — and marveled at the rebuilding taking place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“Cancer, like Katrina, can be overcome,” De Souza said.

Strides are being made in the fight against cancer. Education is important to wipe out cancer, the doctor said.

De Souza said the doctors thought about quitting the journey when flying over the Amazon and Bermuda Triangle. But De Souza’s son, Alexander, 13, a student at Spencer Middle School, texted his father that they needed to continue for a good cause.

“He (Alexander) said, ‘We all die. The goal is not to live forever but to make something that will.’”

De Souza was touched by the kindness of the people he met along the trip. A maid on a Caribbean island handed him $10 for the cancer crusade. Others offered free food and lodging.

“There are many more good than bad people,” he said.

De Souza wants to fly on another cancer crusade in 2015. This time it would be around the world in 80 days to raise $5 million.

And he wants to fly with his son to celebrate a cure for cancer.

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