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When Tawny Dzierzek posted a selfie to Facebook in spring 2015, she probably didn't intend to engage the internet in a mass lesson about sun safety. But two years after a photo Dzierzek shared went viral, a new study suggests it spurred people to educate themselves about skin cancer.
Dzierzek was diagnosed with skin cancer at age 21, and in late April 2015, the then-27-year-old nurse , hair wrapped in a towel and face splotched with raw red scabs. "If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go!" she wrote. "This is what can look like."
"Don't let tanning prevent you from seeing your children grow up," she added. "That's my biggest fear now that I have a two-year-old boy of my own."
Dzierzek went on to explain that, in high school, she used tanning beds frequently—sometimes as much as four times per week. By the time she hit her late twenties, she'd had basal cell carcinoma—growths or lesions that look like open sores—five times and squamous cell carcinoma—raised, wart-like growths—once. Nearly every time she visited her dermatologist, which was once or twice a year, she had a cancerous growth removed, she wrote. While she'd been lucky enough to avoid potentially deadly melanoma, Dzierzek said, the damage she did incur still left its marks on her face.
At the time, the post sparked conversation—and since then, it's had been shared over 100,000 times and generated 22,000 comments. Not bad, right? Well, turns out those shares may have had a huge impact: According to a study by researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Google searches for "skin" and "cancer" spiked in the aftermath of the post: Search queries were up 162 percent on May 13, 2015, 155 percent on May 14, and sustained momentum through May 17, the period when Dzierzek's selfies garnered media attention. All told, searches for skin-cancer prevention were 232 percent higher than usual, while searches for skin cancer and tanning came in 489 percent higher.
"When the public sees 'real' stories, they gravitate toward them," the study's co-author, San Diego State's John W. Ayers, Ph.D., said. "It turns out that when people speak up to share their stories, their voices can resonate far more than we had imagined."
The study's lead author, UNC School of Media and Journalism professor Seth Noar, Ph.D., agreed.
"A growing body of research shows that stories can be very impactful—more impactful than didactic information—in delivering a health message," Noar said. "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."
Since the study came out, Dzierzek has shared coverage on her Facebook page.
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