The power of a selfie: How one viral Facebook post increased skin cancer awareness

It started in 2015, when a woman posted a before-and-after picture of herself with a warning for others, and it led to near-record levels of awareness.

“If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go! This is what skin cancer treatment can look like,” Tawny Willoughby wrote on her Facebook page at the time.

The then-27-year-old said her frequent use of a tanning bed as a teenager led to a cancer diagnosis when she was 21, and she warned people away from tanning.

The post led to around 200,000 Google searches for “skin cancer” alone, Seth Noar found.

Noar, a researcher in health communications, said the amount of media coverage was “fascinating,” and was worth further study.

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“[It] says everything we need to know about the modern media environment: she took a selfie with her phone, posted it on social media, it went viral on Facebook and the national media picked up the story,” he explained to Global News.

In a study published in the journal Preventive Medicine — titled “Can a Selfie Promote Public Engagement with Skin Cancer?” — Noar and his co-authors said between May 11 and May 14, 2017 there were over 150 news stories about the viral post.

(Global News covered the Facebook post, you can read our coverage here.)

He found searches for skin cancer jumped 162 per cent on May 13, and another 155 per cent on May 14.

Those are numbers usually seen when celebrities talk about health issues, Noar said.

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“What surprised me is how much one person’s voice could have such an impact on public interest about skin cancer,” Noar said.

“Rarely do we see an ordinary person’s story have this kind of reach and resonance with the public.”

Along with information about skin cancer, there was also a spike in searches for “skin-cancer prevention” and “tan” or “tanning.”

The study left some questions unanswered: researchers weren’t able to determine where these searches led or whether preventative action was taken, but it’s clear awareness was raised.

Skin cancer is a highly preventable cancer, Noar explained. The study found with more research, educators can harness “organic” events like this, along with planned communication, to reduce mortality rates in skin cancer.

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