Going for the Double Whammy in Sun Safety Education

Photo credit: CDC

Skin cancer is becoming a young person’s disease, with melanoma (the most deadly kind of skin cancer) being the 2nd most common form of cancer for people aged 15-29.[1] What’s more, reducing exposure to the sun is a preventable risk factor that can reduce a person’s risk of getting the disease. But as we know, it’s not easy to get people to permanently change their health behaviors.

However, there are many educational strategies that can be successful in changing health behaviors. I’d like to turn to Patient H, a case study showing how an intervention program drastically improved a young worker’s attitude and behavior towards sun safety. Even though Patient H began the intervention with many misconceptions about UV radiation, tans, and sun protection, the intervention was wildly successful in permanently changing her behaviors.

How do I know so much about Patient H? Because Patient H is me! I used to be pretty bad when it came to sun safely. When I was younger, I prided myself on not having to wear sunscreen because of my brown skin. While I never succumbed to the tanning bed, I could certainly be found lying out in the sun throughout our precious summer months. And on cloudy days, it would never even occur to me to use sunscreen.

Since beginning this internship at the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences, I’ve changed my ways (a public health miracle!): I have started wearing sunscreen everyday (even on cloudy days), could care less about having an even tan (I’d rather be patchy than skin cancer-y, thank you), and I even bought a pink parasol for portable shade (which I have already gotten a compliment on).

As a “sun safety” intern, it’s been my job to develop sun safety trainings for young workers. To do this, I’ve had to learn as much as I can about skin cancer and sun safety. After learning as much as I have, it just makes sense to protect my skin from the sun. I had to discover much of this information on my own, so I feel a sense of ownership and responsibility to understanding it fully. Having knowledge about sun safety, from how often to reapply sunscreen to the way UV rays damages DNA, feels empowering and has influenced me to make a personal decision to take care of my skin.

While not everyone can have an OHSU summer internship, I think there’s something to having people educate themselves via teaching others. It’s like a covert way of getting someone to learn about something: no one made me learn all this stuff about skin cancer and sun protection, but I needed to know it to be able to help others, which has made me think about my own behaviors and how I should change them. Perhaps in the future we can create programs that employ high school students and young adults to teach younger children about sun safety, which I believe would be effective in educating both groups. When it comes to educating about sun safety, it seems to me that we should look for the double whammy!

Submitted by: Hilary Nichols, Summer Intern, McCullough and Rohlman Labs

[1] Bleyer A, O’Leary M, Barr R, Ries LAG (eds): Cancer epidemiology in older adolescents and young adults 15 to 29 years of age, including SEER incidence and survival: 1975-2000. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 2006.