Sylvester’s Game Changer: A Ride-along
The mobile cancer screening vehicle provides needed education, prevention and research opportunities to underserved communities.
Since launching its first Game Changer vehicle in 2018, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has steadily grown this lifesaving outreach program. With support from community organizations and philanthropic donors, Sylvester’s Office of Outreach and Engagement now operates three vehicles that bring cancer screening and research opportunities to underserved neighborhoods from Monroe to Palm Beach County.
“The Game Changer vehicles close critical gaps in access to cancer education, prevention and research throughout South Florida, and in so doing help fulfill Sylvester’s mission to reduce the local cancer burden,” said Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director, Community Outreach and Engagement at Sylvester, co-director, Clinical Translational Research Institute, the John K. and Judy H. Schulte Senior Endowed Chair in Cancer Research and vice provost for research and scholarship.
The following recounts a typical day with a Game Changer team.
Palmetto Bay Event
It’s 9:45 a.m. on a hot August day as a Game Changer cancer screening vehicle arrives at Coral Reef Library in Palmetto Bay, Fla. The team from Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center of UHealth – University of Miami Health System will spend the next four hours conducting screenings for head and neck cancers using a proprietary assessment tool available only from Sylvester.
Onboard are Elizabeth J. Franzmann, M.D., a specialist in head and neck surgery who focuses on early detection of tumors; Jacques Pierre-Louis, research associate; Yarisleivy Silva Acosta, outreach specialist; and Cassandra White, project coordinator, from the Sylvester Office of Outreach and Engagement.
“We have identified areas where there is a strong need for early detection of cancers,” Dr. Franzmann says. “For instance, there is a high percentage of head and neck cancers among minorities in south Miami-Dade. The Game Changer makes screenings very accessible and available to everyone. We go into these areas and develop a rapport with the community so we can educate and encourage them to be checked for early signs of cancer.”
After parking the 40-foot Game Changer vehicle, the team takes about 20 minutes to unpack the screening equipment and set up an outside table where participants can register and pick up some University of Miami “swag” as well. Fortunately, it’s in the shade — at least for now.
The First Participant
Before long, the first participant arrives. It’s Khambrel Brown, who saw a flyer about the screening inside the library. “I am here today because I want to feel secure in myself and to help other people,” he says. “My mother died of liver cancer when she was 48, so I’m glad to sign up for research that could help find ways to cure cancer.”
Brown adds that he knows people in his neighborhood who need to be screened for cancer but don’t have insurance to cover a visit to the doctor. “I hope that people take care of themselves so they can live long and healthy lives,” he says. “I’m grateful to the University of Miami for being here today.”
After Brown leaves, Dr. Franzmann takes a few minutes to explain how the screening process is done inside the Game Changer. “Today, we are conducting field research on a new screening test,” she says. “Our participants rinse their mouths and gargle for five seconds, and spit into a cup that is sent for immediate testing. If we find any signs of cancer, we give the participants information on where to go to receive help and follow up with them.”
Along with these initiatives, Shria Kumar, M.D., assistant professor of digestive and liver diseases, uses the Game Changer to assist with research on Helicobacter pylori, a stomach bacteria that can lead to gastric cancer.
“Partnering with the Game Changer vehicles, we examine rates of infection in our community and how these rates vary among different groups, including immigrants of different countries,” says Dr. Kumar. “We use a breath testing machine, and if a person has H. pylori, we give them treatment on the spot and arrange follow-up testing. Our findings could lead to future larger studies that look to improve the health of minority populations across the U.S.”
Meanwhile, Game Changer team members invite library visitors to stop by the vehicle for a free, quick and painless cancer screening. In the weeks before the event, the Office of Outreach and Engagement notified organizations in the Palmetto Bay area about the visit and delivered flyers to nearby locations.
As an outreach specialist, Silva Acosta enjoys building partnerships with neighborhood organizations, explaining how the Game Changer program can benefit individuals and families.
“In the past two months, we’ve arranged 27 more locations throughout South Florida, including health fairs and other community events,” she says. “We also bring the vehicle to employers, making it very convenient for their people to be screened on site.”
A fluent Spanish speaker, Silva Acosta says that understanding different languages is important when encouraging people from different cultures to get free, non-invasive cancer screenings. Pierre-Louis, who speaks French, Haitian Creole and some Swahili, agrees with Silva Acosta. “Speaking the language is particularly important for our Haitian communities in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties,” he says. “Many are afraid to go to a doctor, so we reassure them about our services while explaining the importance of cancer screening.”
Silva Acosta adds that the Game Changer team typically brings Spanish, Creole and English speakers to events, and can make educational presentations in multiple languages at the same time.
The Screening Results
As the day rolls on, several more participants stop by the Game Changer before the team closes up the vehicle at 2 p.m. “All our participants had normal exams,” says Dr. Franzmann. “They expressed sincere appreciation for this program. We are happy to provide this service and hopeful that this partnership with the community will lead to an effective, accessible early detection test for oral and oropharyngeal cancer that improves the standard of care for our patients and saves lives.”
It’s another successful day for Sylvester’s Game Changer program, says Valerie Bethel, Ph.D., M.B.A./HCM, B.S.W., director, Research Support, Sylvester Office of Outreach and Engagement.
“From January 2023 to July 2023, our teams have screened more than 300 adults over age 18, primarily for colorectal and prostate cancer, as well as HPV, an indicator of many cancers,” Dr. Bethel says. “There were 33 positive results from the screening — about 10 percent of the total — and all those individuals were referred for follow-up care. The Game Changer teams are truly saving lives.”