Thursday, July 10, 2014

Melanoma Advocacy and the Return of Dr. Oz

The melanoma advocacy community has really spoken up lately.  In May, we did our part in increasing melanoma awareness in the general population.  I’ve never seen or read so many corporate-sponsored ads and Twitter chats regarding sun safety and skin cancer.  From L’Oreal Paris and Neutrogena to Glaxo Smith Kline and the Melanoma Research Foundation, it was difficult to venture into social media without seeing some hint of melanoma awareness advocacy.

After the dust settled, well, it didn’t.  Someone spotted a contest on Ellen DeGeneres’ website soliciting “funny sunburn photos.”  This is apparently an annual event on Ellen’s website, but this year we got wind of it and expressed our concern.  In some cases, outrage was expressed!  Melanoma warriors and survivors sent in photos of their scars and excisions rather than “funny” sunburns.  Emails were sent and Ellen’s Facebook page was flooded with concerned comments.  Within 48 hours (or less?) the request for sunburn photos disappeared.  Perhaps this was merely a coincidence or maybe it was a direct result of our efforts.  Whichever, it seems we were heard.

Before the last virtual champagne bottle was opened, another fly in the ointment appeared.  The infamous article from (and posted in other sites) was posted, offering alleged proof from a “major study” that sunscreen causes skin cancer.  The only problem was, the data was cherry-picked, extremely misleading, based on decade old research (long since obsolete) and just down-right full of incorrect information.  In this case, the melanoma advocates didn’t address the source, but chose to share opposing views via their Facebook pages, blogs and articles.  Not only did simple bloggers like me address the issue, major websites such as IFLScience, Snopes and the Melanoma Research Foundation issued statements including supporting evidence of the original articles falsehoods.  As this event is recent, I’m sure there will be even more comments in support of sun safety.

It finally looked like things were going to quiet down, but then I saw another small article today.  It’s not as blatantly anti-sunscreen as the RealFarmacy article or as blissfully ignorant as the Ellen contest, but in my mind, it can be just as damaging to efforts in melanoma and sun-safety advocacy.  And it originates from our old friend Dr. Oz.

Dr. Mehmet Oz may have been the first to create a true outcry from the melanoma advocacy community.  You may recall that back in 2012, Dr. Oz hosted Dr. Joe Mercola, an FDA-cited, tanning bed selling “medical expert” who talked about the benefits of UVB tanning beds (which again…he sells) and how mainstream media was skewing the true melanoma statistics and that the cancer was not indeed increasing in society.  At the end of the interview, Dr. Oz stated that he would “rethink” the use of tanning beds.  Immediately, Dr. Oz became melanoma advocacy public enemy number one!  In my view, Dr. Mercola was the true “evil” in our midst.  Dr. Oz offered up a statement after the show to convey his strong stance against tanning beds, so I personally gave him a little bit of a break.  A little.  (Here’s my assessment of the two doctors).

That” break” has finally dissolved with the airing of his television show on July 7. 

During this episode, Dr. Oz addressed summer health myths, such as “Are mosquitoes attracted to sweet blood?” “Do you have to wait 20 minutes after eating before swimming?,” “ and “Does peeing on a jellyfish sting reduce the pain?”  The first myth addressed was “Does a sunburn fade into a tan?”  When I saw this introduction, I hoped that this would be a great opportunity for the good doctor to share good sun safety tips.  I figured he’d address the myth, and then mention that both sun burns and sun tans are signs of skin damage…just as is stated by the Skin Cancer Foundation and so many other fine medical organizations.

As anticipated, he addressed the myth first.  In short, no, a sun burn does not fade into a tan.  He states, “When the sun hits your skin, it doesn’t just tan – it destroys.”  He and an audience member (who he leads creepily around by the hand) perform a demonstration on how UV rays kill skin cells and tans the few remaining cells.  (This demonstration involved shattering glass for which each wore safety glasses, and scolding hot water, for which no protective gear was worn.  I could swear the audience member may have been burned by spattering hot water).  After the demonstration, Dr. Oz explains the mechanics, and then states, “that’s why burning is never a good idea if you want to get a tan.”  At this point, the audience member smartly states, “Just stay out of the sun unless you’re wearing sunscreen.  End of story.”  Okay…this is the perfect segue for the doctor to explain the damaging effects of burning as well as tanning.

How does Dr. Oz respond?  He replies, “…or get it gently.”   He explains that best way to get a tan is in small doses over time so that the skin cells that survive the burn will have the opportunity to darken and new cells will grow back to further darken through gentle tanning.  He doesn’t discourage tanning at all!  In fact, he’s trying to convince his audience that there’s a safe way to tan.

Let me repeat .  He is explaining a safe way to get a tan.  He never mentions that no tan is a safe tan, and he completely ignores his audience member’s comment that it’s best to wear sunscreen!

This entire discussion takes place in less than two minutes and it doesn’t have the wide distribution of the aforementioned RealFarmacy article, so I doubt there will be the same outrage.  But what upsets me is that Dr. Oz has millions of viewers.  As I stated in my earlier blog in 2012, when Dr. Oz talks, many impressionable viewers who trust his medical expertise will listen.  They now potentially believe that there is a safe way to tan, and are ignorant of the true facts of which Dr. Oz had the perfect opportunity to share.

We melanoma awareness advocates have our victories, but we have new and challenging battles every day.  Don't give up...and don't stop believing.  One day, people will know because they need to know.


  1. First thing is that we cannot get people to stop being in the sun. I do strongly support that people should take strong precautions to keep from burning. While statistics show that 75% on melanoma's appear to be strongly related to UVA/UVB rays It is unknown of what the other 25% may be related to.
    This is one of the few times that I think Dr Oz makes a semi-good statement on melanoma. I have written him 3 times on guests/comments tht or even much worse than these. If we can get people to at l est recognize that moderation is necessary in most everything we will at least be advancing.
    The other thing is that statistically what percentage of people that lay out i n the sun and even what % of those that burn actually come down with Melanoma. We need t o fight the battle in a way that educates people and does not make them ignore the problem.

    1. The problem is, Dr. Oz has a history of inconsistency and misinformation on specialties outside his own. There are times that he is a great advocate for sun safety and then there are times he makes ridiculous statements. I personally would not go to a doctor who exhibited such inconsistency. As for our battle and fight, you're right that the percentage of people who burn/tan that get melanoma is low. Then again, I would state that the percentage of people who smoke and then get lung cancer is also low. The fact is, a high percentage of people who have lung cancer used to smoke...and the high percentage of melanoma cases are due to sunburns or tans (as you state, 75%). As an engineer, I know the most effective way to make a system work better is to address the top two or three issues that create 75% or more of the problem...and that where I think melanoma advocacy is perfectly focused. Thanks for the comment!

  2. As a melanoma advocate, I also share the same reaction to Dr Oz's most recent "out there" statements. I also posted a comment on Ellen's Facebook page about the ridculousness of the "show me your sunburn" campaign. It's a shame to always feel like there are people working against our cause. All we can do is try to correct the message and keep our advocacy going. Awesome blog too by the way :) Ashley in Australia