Skin cancer treatment selfie goes viral, has public health lessons

December 12, 2017

You've heard of the Katie Couric effect, the Angelina Jolie effect and the Charlie Sheen effect, but could the next effect be named after you?

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers and colleagues have discovered that celebrity status may not be necessary to make a public health concern go viral on social media. In a new study, they showed just how effective one person can be in generating awareness about skin cancer -- when his or her post and picture is shared thousands of times on Facebook, that is.

In April 2015, Tawny Dzierzek, a nurse from Kentucky, shared a selfie on Facebook after a recent skin cancer treatment. A former frequent user of tanning beds, Dzierzek was first diagnosed with skin cancer at age 21. By age 27, she had had basal cell carcinoma five times, and squamous cell carcinoma once. Her post was shared 50,000 times on social media in less than a month, and her story was picked up by media outlets ranging from CNN to BuzzFeed.

Dzierzek's post, and the subsequent media coverage of her story, proved to be powerful tools in raising awareness about skin cancer. Researchers report in the journal Preventive Medicine that Google searches about skin cancer reached near-record levels when media coverage about Dzierzek's selfie was at its peak.

"A growing body of research shows that stories can be very impactful -- more impactful than didactic information -- in delivering a health message," said UNC Lineberger's Seth Noar, PhD, a professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism and the study's lead author. "This event was really a perfect storm of a compelling story and graphic selfie, which seems to have led this Facebook post to go viral."

For the study, Noar collaborated with several colleagues across the country with expertise in digital surveillance methods. The team evaluated Facebook shares and media coverage, as well as trends in online Google searches for the words "skin" and "cancer" on the date that Dzierzek initially posted the photo on Facebook (April 25, 2015) through the period when media coverage of her story peaked and then declined.

The team found all search queries for skin cancer reached near-record levels, increasing 162 percent compared with historical trends on May 13, 2015, and 155 percent on May 14, 2015, when news about Dzierzek's skin cancer "selfie" was at its peak. Queries remained higher through May 17. "In practical terms, this translated into about 200,000 more Google searches than would otherwise have been expected in just those six days," said study co-author John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, of San Diego State University.

Not only did the public have more interest in skin cancer, but they were also substantially more interested in skin cancer prevention and the link between tanning and skin cancer. Online searches for skin cancer prevention were as much as 232 percent higher than expected, while queries about skin cancer and tanning were as much as 489 percent higher.

"When the public sees 'real' stories, they gravitate toward them," Ayers said. "It turns out that when people speak up to share their stories, their voices can resonate far more than we had imagined."

In addition to demonstrating the value of personal narratives in delivering a public health message, Noar said researchers and practitioners could learn to time messages around events such as this. Ayers added that if public health researchers and advocacy groups could get better at identifying these events when they happen, they could help amplify the message and reach many more people.

"When this happened, it really captured the public's attention on social media and through national media coverage," Noar said. "That's an opportune time for all of us to get the message out about the dangers of tanning beds."v

And alerting people about the risks associated with tanning is a very important message, Noar said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the World Health Organization's International Agency of Research on Cancer panel, have declared ultraviolet radiation from the sun as well as tanning beds to be a "known carcinogen." According to the American Academy of Dermatology, tanning beds cause upwards of 400,000 cases of skin cancer each year in the United States.

"Tanning bed use has been starting to decline, and events like this may play a role by reaching people through a 21st century medium with a real story that strikes a chord at a very human level," Noar said.
In addition to Noar and Ayers, the study's other authors are Eric Leas, PhD, MPH, Stanford University School of Medicine; Benjamin M. Althouse, PhD, ScM, Institute for Disease Modeling, Bellevue, Washington; Mark Dredze, PhD, Johns Hopkins University; and Dannielle Kelley, PhD, UNC School of Media and Journalism.

The study was supported by the University Cancer Research Fund and UNC Lineberger.

Ayers reported a conflict of interest through Good Analytics. Dredze reported consulting fees from Directing Medicine LLC and Sickweather LLC.

UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center

Related Cancer Articles from Brightsurf:

New blood cancer treatment works by selectively interfering with cancer cell signalling
University of Alberta scientists have identified the mechanism of action behind a new type of precision cancer drug for blood cancers that is set for human trials, according to research published in Nature Communications.

UCI researchers uncover cancer cell vulnerabilities; may lead to better cancer therapies
A new University of California, Irvine-led study reveals a protein responsible for genetic changes resulting in a variety of cancers, may also be the key to more effective, targeted cancer therapy.

Breast cancer treatment costs highest among young women with metastic cancer
In a fight for their lives, young women, age 18-44, spend double the amount of older women to survive metastatic breast cancer, according to a large statewide study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Cancer mortality continues steady decline, driven by progress against lung cancer
The cancer death rate declined by 29% from 1991 to 2017, including a 2.2% drop from 2016 to 2017, the largest single-year drop in cancer mortality ever reported.

Stress in cervical cancer patients associated with higher risk of cancer-specific mortality
Psychological stress was associated with a higher risk of cancer-specific mortality in women diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Cancer-sniffing dogs 97% accurate in identifying lung cancer, according to study in JAOA
The next step will be to further fractionate the samples based on chemical and physical properties, presenting them back to the dogs until the specific biomarkers for each cancer are identified.

Moffitt Cancer Center researchers identify one way T cell function may fail in cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center researchers have discovered a mechanism by which one type of immune cell, CD8+ T cells, can become dysfunctional, impeding its ability to seek and kill cancer cells.

More cancer survivors, fewer cancer specialists point to challenge in meeting care needs
An aging population, a growing number of cancer survivors, and a projected shortage of cancer care providers will result in a challenge in delivering the care for cancer survivors in the United States if systemic changes are not made.

New cancer vaccine platform a potential tool for efficacious targeted cancer therapy
Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered a solution in the form of a cancer vaccine platform for improving the efficacy of oncolytic viruses used in cancer treatment.

American Cancer Society outlines blueprint for cancer control in the 21st century
The American Cancer Society is outlining its vision for cancer control in the decades ahead in a series of articles that forms the basis of a national cancer control plan.

Read More: Cancer News and Cancer Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to