PAMF Health Blog

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Surf Legend Partners with PAMF Dermatologist to Build Healthier Community and Planet

Posted on Sep 17, 2011


Surf legend Jack O’Neill, founder and chairman of O’Neill Inc., is known the world over for developing the surfing wetsuit which not only keeps surfers warm, but also blocks the sun’s harmful UV rays. PAMF dermatologist James Beckett has two passions outside of his Santa Cruz medical practice: surfing and helping other surfers avoid skin cancer.

So it was a natural fit when, in the late 1980s, Dr. Beckett approached O’Neill with the idea of running free skin cancer screening clinics out of the O’Neill Surf Shop in Santa Cruz.

“It’s a very positive thing,” said Dr. Beckett, who offers the clinics several times a year at the shop, and also does free screenings at local surf contests and health fairs. “The clinics give us a chance to educate people. We find skin cancers almost every time, and recommend that the people go see their doctor and get it examined. Sometimes these folks will come back and tell me, ‘It was a melanoma, but we caught it in time. Thank you so much!’ which is very rewarding.”

“We’ve been together a long time,” said O’Neill. “Dr. Beckett has been coming to our shop for the last 30 years. He sees many kids and has done a fantastic job screening them. He’s found a lot of pre-cancerous skin conditions, and even cancers, and helped many people catch these problems early.”

O’Neill says one of the reasons Dr. Beckett is able to help so many people is because the surfing community considers him as one of their own. “They immediately warm up to him,” said O’Neill. “He’s a good surfer and so are his kids. So lots of the surfers already know him. He speaks their language.”

A practicing dermatologist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz since 1978, Dr. Beckett was an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Stanford University School of Medicine for 25 years. From 1982 to 2004, he served as the medical director of the Santa Cruz Medical Clinic, now part of PAMF.

Since the 1980s, Dr. Beckett has taught sun safety classes to kids in the California Jr. Lifeguard Program. “My kids were only 6 and 7 years old when they first got involved in the program,” he said. “They were getting a great education about how to be safe in the water. But there was no discussion about safety from the sun.” So Dr. Beckett stepped up and volunteered. Since then, he talks to some 2,000 youngsters every summer.

In 1996, O’Neill’s concern for the environment and his love of the sea led him to create the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a living classroom on board a 65-foot catamaran, providing hands-on educational experiences for kids designed to encourage the protection and preservation of our oceans.

“Teaching kids how to protect the sea is something that we just have to do,” said O’Neill emphatically. “We’re on such a crash course. We’ve got to take care of our planet-to teach our children to take care of our planet.”

O’Neill’s son, Tim, is the skipper of the Sea Odyssey and runs the program. And Dr. Beckett serves on the board, helping with fundraising and brainstorming new curriculum ideas. “The ocean has always been so good to me,” said Dr. Beckett. “I want kids to understand how important a healthy ocean is to the ecology of the world, to maintaining a healthy environment on land.”

On board, 4th-6th grade kids from schools throughout Central California gather plankton and learn about navigation, weather patterns, marine life, and the importance of the relationship between the living sea and the environment. They often see seals, sea lions and, occasionally, even porpoises and whales.

“So much of what we teach them really sticks with them,” said O’Neill. “We had one kid take the course years ago. He wound up going to UCSC, took his degree in marine biology and now he’s a teacher.”

“A community really can’t rely on outside resources or government,” said Dr. Beckett. “Its strength relates directly to the engagement and involvement of local people helping those who need help. For myself, I just want to give back to a community that has given so much to me.”

A recipient of the Health Caring Award from the William S. Graham Melanoma Foundation, Dr. Beckett currently serves on the boards of Santa Cruz Cancer Benefit Group, Santa Cruz Medical Clinic, Inc., Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the O’Neill Sea Odyssey.

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