Training community members to raise awareness of melanoma


Maricella Lopez is a familiar face among Latino farmworkers in the small agricultural community of Fallbrook, California. For the past seven years, she has worked as a lider comunitario, or community health worker, leading focus groups and providing health education about HIV/AIDS, diabetes and oral health.

Through a program being developed by Farmworker Justice in partnership with two community organizations in California and Florida, as well as primary care and oncology care providers, and funded by the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, Maricella meets with farmworkers and their families to talk about the risks of skin cancer and the benefits of screening and treatment for the disease. The program, called Unidos Eliminando Barreras para la Prevención de Cáncer de la Piel (United Eliminating Barriers to Skin Cancer Prevention), establishes community prevention and care networks that use workplace outreach, migrant health clinics, and National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Centers to serve migrant farmworkers and their families at high risk for melanoma and other skin cancers in Florida and California.

Every year, upwards of 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S., more than the number of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer cases combined. Since more than 90 percent of skin cancer diagnoses are associated with exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun, people who work outdoors – such as farmworkers – are at particularly high risk. Studies confirm that farmworkers are at additional risk because of their exposure to pesticides, which increase their likelihood of developing melanoma.

“The average workers spend long hours in the open sun and don’t have basic education about skin cancer and how to prevent it or access screening,” Maricella says. “I let them know that I understand their situation from firsthand experience and want to share my knowledge about skin cancer and prevention with them.”

Maricella and nine other lideres comunitarios engaged with the project are key to connecting with these communities. They understand the challenges farmworkers face – taking time off from work and finding childcare – and will base outreach activities on the farmworkers’ schedules, planning events and screenings in the evenings and on weekends.

“Lideres comunitarios are trusted members of the community, often sharing the same language and cultural traditions as the families they interact with in their outreach communities,” says Carlos Ugarte, director, Health Programs, Farmworker Justice. “They have credibility within the community and people feel comfortable with them."