Personally, when I think about what type of doctors study sun protection, "Dermatologist" is what comes to mind. But there is an entire other field dedicated to it! Cancer Epidemiology is "the study of the factors affecting cancer, as a way to infer possible trends and causes" and its purpose is "to find the cause of cancer and to identify and develop improved treatments" (Wikipedia).
Dr. Leah Ferrucci is an Associate Research Scientist in Epidemiology, with her focus on understanding UV radiation exposure in skin cancer survivors as well as understanding and preventing indoor tanning among young adults and adolescents (publichealth.yale.edu), among other subjects. She was kind enough to allow me to ask her a few questions in honor of Melanoma Awareness Month.
Ashley: How long have you been in the field?
Dr. Ferrucci: I received my PhD in cancer epidemiology in 2009 from Yale University. My doctoral research focused on diet and cancer. I began my work in skin cancer etiology and risk factors in 2010 as a post-doctoral fellow at the Yale School of Public Health with funding from the National Cancer Institute, so I have been studying skin cancer prevention for about 7 years. In 2013, I moved into a research faculty position at the Yale School of Public Health and have been conducting my current research focused on reducing indoor tanning with funding from the American Cancer Society.
A: You are currently working on behavioral interventions to reduce indoor tanning in young women, what can you tell us about your work thus far?
Dr. F: This is a project that we have designed targets women ages 20-30 who are using tanning beds. We saw in some of our other work that this was a group of women being missed by some existing interventions that only focused on college-age women. We have designed everything to be delivered online and via email so that if our intervention is successful it could be disseminated to other locations easily. It is six part education program that people can access from their smart phones or computers. It delivers content in brief 5-10 minutes session and uses interactive features such as quizzes, videos, and photographs. We know that this is a demographic that is highly engaged with technology, so we are utilizing lots of content on skin cancer prevention that is already available, but putting it onto a platform that should be ideal for this group. We should have results by the end of the year.
A: What kind of results are you hoping to see from this work?
Dr. F: We are hoping that our brief online intervention will help young women reduce or stop their indoor tanning. We also cover general sun protection in our intervention, so we will also be assessing sunbathing sessions and hope to see a reduction in this behavior as well. Our program focuses on helping women to think about the health of their skin from multiple angles (e.g. appearance, skin cancer risk) and provide them with alternatives to indoor tanning. These alternatives might include exercise to improve their outward appearance in other ways than tanning or going to a spa or a yoga class to seek the relaxation and mood benefits others might associate with indoor tanning.
A: Are there any common myths or misconceptions about sun protection?
Dr. F: Some common myths include:
-Indoor tanning is safer than being in the sun.
-It’s okay if I only get a tan and don’t burn.
-If I am wearing sunscreen, I can stay out in the sun longer.
-You only get skin cancer when you get old.
-Skin cancer is easy to treat, so I don’t need to worry.
A: What is your favorite brand of sunscreen?
Dr. F: Everyone should look for a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher. The other thing to look for is broad spectrum protection (UVA and UVB). It is also essential to know the amount of sunscreen to apply. You need one ounce (think of a shot glass) applied to exposed areas of the skin about every two hours or after being in the water or sweating. I think the most important thing is to find a brand that you like in terms of application, smell, etc., so that you can follow these recommendations.
A: Who is at the most risk for developing skin cancer?
Dr. F: The primary risk factors for skin cancer are lighter skin, eye and hair color, skin that is prone to sunburns, a family history of skin cancer, high sun exposure, history of sunburns, a large number of moles, and a history of indoor tanning. Overall, individuals are at greater risk for skin cancer as they get older. At older ages we see much higher rates of skin cancer in men. However, we have been seeing more skin cancer in young people, and in this group, women have higher rates of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer. Much of this increase in young people has been attributed to indoor tanning.
A: What is the most important thing women can do every day to protect themselves and their skin?
Dr. F: The most important thing women can do to protect their skin is to reduce their exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and indoor tanning. It is important to not indoor tan and to use sunscreen on all the days that you are outside. For many women, finding a daily moisturizer that includes SPF sunscreen is an easy way to take care of this as you leave your house each day.
Written by: Ashley Pettigrew
Follow Ashley on Instagram! @ashley.trisirena
Did this article inspire you to take your sun protection more seriously? What is something you do every day to protect your skin? Tell us in the comments below!