I still remember my patient’s distraught face when I broke the news. It was the mid-1960s, and I was a young dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at New York University Medical Center. I had just informed this elderly patient that she had skin cancer. When I told her it likely resulted from a lifetime of sun exposure, she was shocked. “Why wasn’t I told?” she lamented. “Why didn’t anyone tell us the sun isn’t good for you?”
Her frustration was justified. The public and much of the medical community were still in the Dark Ages about the sun’s damaging effects and their link to skin cancer. No one was speaking out about sun safety. I had approached the American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Dermatology about initiating a program, without success.
So in 1979, with the help of appreciative patients and my NYU colleague Alfred W. Kopf, MD, we established The Skin Cancer Foundation, a non-profit organization, created to educate the public and medical profession about preventing, detecting and treating the world’s most common cancer.
The public had little understanding of sunscreens then. Sun Protection Factor (SPF), which measures protection against the sun’s UVB rays, had only recently been introduced in the US. And the FDA was not yet regulating claims by sunscreen makers. Filling this void, we established a Photobiology Committee of leading scientific authorities on the effects of UV radiation on the skin. Our committee established SPF 15 as the minimum acceptable standard for sun protection and developed stringent testing requirements to validate SPF numbers. We then established the Seal of Recommendation program, which today continues to help consumers select safe and effective sun protection products.
We also saw a need in the medical community for information on melanoma research, then a very new field. In 1983, we founded the quarterly newsletter The Melanoma Letter, to provide doctors with medically reviewed clinical articles on the latest in melanoma research. We soon followed with two publications for patients and everyday readers: The Skin Cancer Foundation Journal, with articles about sun protection and skin cancer written by physicians, and The Sun & Skin News, a quarterly newsletter on sun safety and related issues of importance.
Today, our website, SkinCancer.org, is the go-to source of medically reviewed content for more than 10 million annual visitors. We reach the public in many other ways as well. Each summer, our Road to Healthy Skin Tour visits dozens of cities around the country for skin cancer screenings. Our professional members include some 1,000 dermatologists, and many of them appear in the national media, reaching millions about skin cancer prevention.
In this short space, I cannot cover all the areas (such as research grants, advocacy, school programs, and international outreach) where we have made a major impact. I can say, however, that in our 36 years, we have saved lives by raising public awareness of skin cancer. We have helped make daily sun protection (clothing, hats, sunglasses, shade, tanning avoidance, sunscreen) an increasingly essential part of our culture. But we must not rest. While skin cancer awareness has greatly increased, rates of the disease continue to rise. Our challenge is to empower new generations to protect their skin health, leading to a future with far fewer skin cancers.
Published on November 16, 2015