A Trip to the Golf Course Saved Patient’s Life


A Trip to the Golf Course Saved Patient’s Life

Winchester, MA – Brian Gaffey is an avid golfer. So too is Robert O’Brien. The two had seen each other around Winchester Country Club many times, but they had never gotten the chance to speak.

That changed one Saturday afternoon. Both men were without a playing partner, so they decided to pair up. As the two made their way through the course, Gaffey learned that O’Brien is a dermatologist at Winchester Hospital.

A few weeks earlier, Gaffey had noticed a patch of skin on the back of his neck turn black. Since there was no pain or discomfort, the 47-year-old Arlington resident shrugged it off as just a natural change in his body.

“If I didn’t see him that day, I probably would have let it go,” Gaffey said. “Who knows when I would have seen a doctor?”

By the time the two golfers made it to the 18th hole, Gaffey felt comfortable enough with Dr. O’Brien to ask him about his neck.

“I was pretty sure it was melanoma,” said Dr. O’Brien, who practices at Dermatology Associates in Winchester. “I had him come to the office the following day for a biopsy which confirmed the diagnosis. Within a week I completely removed the cancerous growth.”

The two have been regular golfing buddies ever since, but if Gaffey had waited any longer; he might not have had such a positive outcome.

“It had started to show early signs of invasion,” Dr. O’Brien said of the cancer. “Once it spreads internally, there’s little we can do in terms of treatment. If Brian had waited much longer it is quite possible that the melanoma would have metastasized and led to his death.”

According to Dr. O’Brien, the cases of melanoma he has seen have been dramatically increasing over the past 10 to 15 years. When he started practicing 25 years ago, Dr. O’Brien would see maybe three or four melanoma patients a month. Now, he may see as many as two or three in a week.

“Patients come in and they’re diagnosed with skin cancer and they’re shocked because they tell me that they don’t go in the sun anymore,” Dr. O’Brien said. ““The key is anymore. The skin has a memory and all it takes is a few blistering burns as a youngster and the damage is done.”

Fortunately, melanoma is very treatable as long as it’s caught early.

“The whole key to melanoma is early detection and removal,” Dr. O’Brien said. “That’s why awareness is so important – it can save someone’s life.”

In order to prevent skin cancer or detect it before it becomes life-threatening, Dr. O’Brien offers some tips:

  • Wear protective clothing in the sun. Wear a hat that shades the face, neck and ears. Plan outdoor activities to avoid the midday sun.
  • Examine the skin regularly. Suspicious lesions or progressive changes in a lesion’s appearance or size should be evaluated promptly by a physician.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect eyes from UV light.
  • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher and apply a generous amount (about a palmful) 15 to 20 minutes before going outdoors. Reapply sunscreen as necessary throughout the day, especially after swimming, perspiring or towel drying. Use sunscreen even on hazy days.
  • Avoid artificial sources of UV light such as sunlamps and tanning beds. • Remember this important sun safety tip: “Slip! Slop! Slap!” Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) and slap on a hat.
  • One should have their moles checked annually by their primary care physician and perform periodic self-examinations.
About Winchester Hospital

Winchester Hospital, a member of Lahey Health, is the first hospital in Massachusetts to earn Magnet recognition, the American Nurses Association’s highest honor for nursing excellence, three times. As the northwest suburban Boston area’s leading provider of comprehensive health care services, the 229-bed facility provides care in general, bariatric and vascular surgery, orthopedics, pediatrics, cardiology, pulmonary medicine, oncology, gastroenterology, rehabilitation, radiation oncology, pain management, obstetrics/gynecology and a Level IIB Special Care Nursery. Winchester Hospital has clinical affiliations with several nationally recognized hospitals in the region, including Boston Children’s Hospital, Tufts Medical Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. To learn more, visit www.winchesterhospital.org.