If you’re not up to date with your preventive cancer screenings, Kevin Tephabock would suggest you stop reading this right now and schedule an appointment. Even though this blog post is about him.
Kevin is in his seventeenth year with the American Cancer Society (ACS), where he serves as senior manager of primary care systems, helping to improve cancer screening rates at health care facilities in West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. The ACS is one of the many cancer organizations supported by the Highmark Health enterprise, and is the largest voluntary health organization in the United States.
Kevin loves his job, but is most passionate about the people he gets to work with and help. He prides himself and the ACS on their ability to connect with others on an individual level. In a world that relies so heavily on statistics and data, Kevin has found that making personal connections is a much more effective way to convey the importance of cancer prevention.
“People don’t always understand or connect with numbers and statistics. They may not understand numbers, but they understand human lives,” Kevin says. “You can tell someone that the risk of developing colorectal cancer is 1 in 20, for instance, and that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Even to me, those numbers mean little. It’s the one-on-one connection that makes the real difference.”
In making those connections and talking with people about their health, Kevin gets to do something on a near-daily basis that he thinks is eminently valuable.
“You can do no better for someone than to tell them that their life is important — that they are valuable. I get the opportunity to do that, and that message goes hand-in-hand with educating people about the value of screening,” he says.
That’s a message that Kevin passes along to the physicians he works with, too, who can urge their patients to get screened. He’s learned that reminding patients of their responsibility to the important people in their lives (family, friends and co-workers) can serve as a wake-up call to those who need to be screened, and helps them take prevention a little more seriously.
There are numbers, though, that Kevin feels good about.
“Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen a 22 percent drop in cancer mortality rates. That amounts to about 500 people [in the U.S.] a day,” he says.
“But the real number in all of this is ONE,” Kevin adds. “It’s that one person who can be saved, either through screening, quitting smoking or taking prevention seriously. It’s the mother or grandmother you have personally lost to cancer or the brother who is battling the disease.”
Kevin’s involvement with the American Cancer Society began after his own father battled — and beat — cancer. Still, he says he didn’t fully understand the impact of the ACS until he started working with patients and caregivers.
In fact, in his first day on the job, Kevin experienced a moment that would define his work for the next 17 years.
Invited by an ACS volunteer, Kevin attended a “Look Good, Feel Better” session for cancer patients at the end of his first workday. He says there were about 10 women sitting around a table, both cancer patients and their supporters, at an event to help them feel beautiful and like themselves again, recovering what had been taken from them by cancer and its treatment. The cosmetologist running the session asked for a volunteer and was greeted with a long silence from the audience. Finally, Kevin says, a young girl from a mother – daughter pair took her wig off and said, “I’ll do it,” and stepped forward.
“I was stunned,” says Kevin, who was fully expecting the mother of the pair to be the one with cancer. He says he doesn’t think he was alone in that assumption that only older people face cancer, and that that moment of bravery almost immediately helped bring the session attendees together.
Throughout his career, Kevin has tried to instill that kind of positivity into every aspect of his job, helping patients find their bravery and providing a confidence to those anxious about what their screenings may reveal. Serving local communities in West Virginia, he’s gotten to work closely with doctors and patients, building relationships with them, and becoming their friends.
Through one of these friendships, Kevin helped encourage a physician to get a screening. As it turned out, that was a pretty good suggestion.
“She’d been reluctant to get a screening, because she didn’t have time. Like so many of her patients, she knew she had a family to think about,” Kevin says. Considering her two kids and Kevin’s personal message, the physician set up a screening for colorectal cancer. As it turned out, the screening revealed polyps, which can turn into colorectal cancer, that were able to be removed.
As a physician, she knew that — if left untreated — those polyps could have developed into big problems, Kevin explains. “She credits me with saving her life.”
A father of three himself, when Kevin thinks about his own father’s battle with cancer, or his friend’s cancer scare, or the thousands who aren’t screened, he becomes laser-focused on his mission.
“It’s personal, for me, and it’s important.” Kevin takes to heart the lessons he passes on to patients and physicians. “My legacy to my kids is that I’m going to be around and there for them,” he says.
As evidenced by Kevin’s work, the ACS has increasingly focused on cancer prevention, noting that taking steps to lower cancer risk and detecting it early are the most effective strategies in beating many forms of cancer.
But that’s easier said than done. A lot of people are reluctant to schedule screenings for various cancers. While “cost” may seem like an obvious deterrent, Kevin says that isn’t usually a huge factor.
“Many people who have insurance — for whom screenings are often free — still don’t get screened,” he says.
Instead, Kevin believes fear is one of the more common reasons for avoiding screenings.
“People can be afraid to be screened. They don’t always know what to expect, and sometimes they’re worried about the inconvenience or discomfort, or they simply don’t want to know one way or the other. What we try to do is break down those barriers. Ease those fears. Provide options,” he says.
When those fears are alleviated, it’s easy to shift the focus of the conversation to the benefits of cancer screening, which overwhelmingly outweigh any scheduling inconvenience or temporary discomfort related to a screening.
“At that point I remind them, ‘you do have value, and being screened early can save your life,’” Kevin says. “That’s the message I want to get across to everyone.”
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