A viral selfie documenting a woman’s skin cancer treatment prompted record high Google searches for prevention of the condition, a recent study found.
In April 2015, Tawny Dzierzek, a nurse from Kentucky, shared a selfie on Facebook after a skin cancer treatment. She was 27 years old when she posted the graphic photo to show the world the ugly side of tanning gone wrong.
“If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go!” she wrote. “This is what skin cancer treatment can look like.”
Dzierzek was first diagnosed with skin cancer at the age of 21. By 27, she had had basal cell carcinoma five times and squamous cell carcinoma once. She posted a picture of her face covered with scabs and said they were caused because she used a treatment called Aldara, which goes by the generic name imiquimod. The picture went viral and was shared over 105,000 times since.
Researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published the results of a research which suggested that Dzierzek’s post and the media coverage it received proved to be powerful tools in raising awareness about skin cancer. A press release containing the summary of the paper titled “Can a selfie promote public engagement with skin cancer?” was published in Eureka Alert on Monday.
The authors studied Facebook shares, trends in online Google searches as well as media coverage for the words “skin” and “cancer” on the date Dzierzek initially posted the photo on Facebook (April 25, 2015) and through the period when media coverage of her story peaked and then declined.
They found the post led to near-record levels of queries for skin cancer and increased 162 percent when 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.
The study found that people were also more interested in knowing how skin cancer could be prevented and the link between tanning and the disease. Queries about skin cancer prevention were as much as 232 percent higher than the researchers had expected and searches on skin cancer and tanning were almost 489 percent higher.
A member of University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the study’s lead author, Seth Noar said in a statement: “A growing body of research shows that stories can be very impactful — more impactful than didactic information — in delivering a health message. 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.”
“It turns out that when people speak up to share their stories, their voices can resonate far more than we had imagined,” Noar added.
“When the public sees ‘real’ stories, they gravitate toward them,” study co-author John W. Ayers, San Diego State University said.
He added that if public health researchers and advocacy groups could identify such events when they occurred, the message could be amplified and could reach the public better. Meanwhile, Noar encouraged researchers and practitioners to time messages about public health around events like this.
The study also proved that it was not only celebrities but others too could make a public health concern go viral on social media.