On April 25, 2015, a Kentucky mother named Tawny, 29, posted a graphic selfie, accompanied by a powerful message about skin cancer to her Facebook. The image contained blistered and raw scars from skin cancer treatments, as a result of excessive tanning bed sessions and sun bathing in her teens. Little did she know, at the time, that her selfie would be the catalyst for thousands upon thousands of women to inquire about the dangers of skin cancer with their own doctors; let alone, did she think it would have went viral… for years! Click here to see the graphic image.
Today, that same selfie of her “disfigured” skin is still the talk of the internet, thanks to a new study — released on Dec. 12, 2017 — from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Researchers and colleagues at the University teamed up after noticing that Tawny’s selfie was being picked up by numerous media outlets in 2015. They studied the social media and search engine inquiries that poured in from people after seeing her viral post, only to discover that celebrity status doesn’t necessarily effect how viral a public health concern can go.
The study found that searches containing the words “skin” and “cancer” increased by 162 percent after Tawny’s selfie went public, and continued to rise after the fact; Much like searches similar to mastectomies and HIV-positive inquiries rose after Angelina Jolie, 42, revealed her double mastectomy operation [May, 2013] and Charlie Sheen, 52, admitted he is HIV-positive [August, 2017]. The study compares Tawny’s story to “the Angelina Jolie effect and the Charlie Sheen effect.” — “We conclude that an ordinary person’s social media post caught the public’s imagination and led to significant increases in public engagement with skin cancer prevention,” the study states.
“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.”
How the study was done — Noar teamed up with several colleagues across the country who all concentrated on 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 Tawny initially posted the photo on Facebook [April 25, 2015]. Their evaluations continued through the timetable that the media covered her story — peak time to when the story declined online.
What the team found — They discovered that all searches for skin cancer recored near-record levels, increasing 162 percent in comparison with historical trends. Search for skin cancer continued to rise through May 17 of 2015; two days after her selfie was posted. “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.
Tawny’s original Facebook post from 2015, explaining her story read:
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. Wear sunscreen and get a spray tan. Learn from other people’s mistakes. Don’t let tanning prevent you from seeing your children grow up. That’s my biggest fear now that I have a two year old little boy of my own.
Edited to add: To answer a few questions and comments I’ve seen, I did the bulk of my tanning in high school. I sometimes laid up to 4 times a week (I laid frequently because my tan faded very fast). I never laid in the tanning bed and in the sun in the same day. I never laid in the tanning bed twice in one day. I had my first skin cancer diagnosis at 21. Now, at 27, I’ve had basal cell carcinoma 5 times and squamous cell carcinoma once (excluding my face). I go to the dermatologist every 6-12 months and usually have a skin cancer removed at each checkup. I’m very thankful to not have had melanoma! Skin cancer is not always moles, only one of mine have been a mole. Get any suspicious, new and growing spot checked out. Anything that doesn’t heal, possibly bleeds on and off and crusts. The sooner you find it the less likely it will leave a disfiguring scar or grow deep enough to metastasize. Melanoma kills, non melanoma disfigures (and can also kill). Don’t be a statistic! This treatment was done using a cream called Aldara (imiquimod). I’ve also had the following treatments: Curettage and Electrodessication, Cryosurgery (freezing with liquid nitrogen), Surgical Excision and Photodynamic Therapy (PDT). I’m happy to answer any questions you have about my story and skin cancer in general! Thanks for the shares
Additional edit: I see a lot of comments regarding the frequency of my tanning. Please do not allow that to help you justify your tanning. I laid up to four times a week. Yes, that is excessive. Keep in mind that was not my typical frequency. I did that when I had an event coming up which I wanted to be tan for (homecoming, prom, vacation…). Most of the time I tanned 1-2 times per week. There were weeks I didn’t tan at all. This intention of the post is to help people. Please do not belittle me or my message to justify your own actions.
Editor’s note: media outlets refer to her as Tawny Willoughby; while the above study refers to her as Tawny Dzierzek;
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