You've seen them on all your social media feeds and even here on Refinery29 — it seems that every so often, someone's graphic photo warning about the dangers of skin cancer will go viral.
Beyond being something you just can't seem to look away from, however, those photos actually serve a purpose, and they're way less fear mongering than you might think. According to a study published in the journal Preventative Medicine, a photo that a Kentucky woman named Tawny Willoughby posted back in 2015 had a significant effect in raising awareness for skin cancer.
In 2015, Willoughby posted a graphic photo of herself during skin cancer treatment to warn others of the effects of tanning. Subsequently, the photo went viral with over 105,000 shares, in what researchers are comparing to the "Angelina effect," or the conversation that spread around breast cancer when Angelina Jolie spoke about her preventative double mastectomy in 2013.
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After Willoughby's photo went viral, the study says, internet searches about skin cancer hit a record-high.
"TW's skin cancer selfie went viral on May 11, 2015 after the social media post had been shared approximately 50,000 times," researchers wrote. "All search queries for skin cancer increased 162% and 155% on May 13th and 14th, when news about TW's skin cancer selfie was at its peak, and remained higher through May 17th. Google searches about skin cancer prevention and tanning were also significantly higher than expected volumes."
Unlike Jolie, however, Willoughby is just a regular person like the rest of us, which says a lot about the power we have via social media to have an impact.
Of course, since 2015, plenty of other people have posted photos of their skin cancer symptoms that have also gone viral. While the study only looked at one photo, it's hugely indicative of the effect that all of these viral photos can have in helping others prevent skin cancer. So, yes, they do have an important purpose, other than making the most squeamish among us squirm.
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