Teen works to inspire sun safety

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Rising high school junior Ellis Schroeder brought a large donation in June to the Atlanta Union Mission — but not the typical offering of food, clothes or money to support the homeless.

He dropped off 50 packages filled with sunscreen, sunglasses, and other skin and healthcare products. His goal was to provide some skin protection to the homeless, many of whom spend their nights at the mission and their days on the streets in the heat and humidity that are trademarks of summers in Atlanta.

“I want to raise awareness about sun safety and provide access to skin cancer prevention,” the 16-year-old said.

Skin cancer has never affected Ellis or anyone in his family. But, for most of his life, he’s battled rosacea (pronounced roe-ZAY-she-uh), a common skin condition that causes blushing or flushing and visible blood vessels in the face. And he said that sparked his interest in the biology of the skin and, ultimately, skin cancer, now the most common form of cancer in the U.S.

In the past year, Ellis has been on a mission to educate his friends and classmates at Druid Hills High — and anyone else who will listen — about the importance of sun safety.

He has created and serves as executive director of an all-volunteer nonprofit called DermaTeens, which is dedicated to educating teens on skin health and promoting sun-safe habits and has about 30 young people from across the globe on board.

The nonprofit’s teens regularly turn out research and reports on various skin conditions and topics such as “how humidity affects your scalp” and “genetic influences on the skin.” Leary of putting out any misinformation, Ellis and his team draw on data from the CDC and other reputable organizations and have a doctor review each article for accuracy before publication.

He’s spoken about sun safety at school, created a cancer-safety webinar, set up a website and Instagram account, and reached over 100,000 people on social media.

"His drive and passion for sun safety and public health are already having a real impact," said Deb Girard, executive director of IMPACT Melanoma, a national nonprofit dedicated to skin cancer prevention and early detection.

Leaders of IMPACT assisted Ellis with his sun-safe project for the homeless and inspired him with their efforts to equip Atlanta’s Piedmont and Grant parks with sunscreen dispensers. He’s now working to place sunscreen dispensers near home, at Zonolite Park in the North Druid Hills area of DeKalb County.

That’s no small feat since it requires buy-in from park management to place the dispensers and a plan for their regular maintenance, said Laurie Seavey, IMPACT Melanoma Practice Safe Skin Program manager.

Ellis has gone out in the community to farmer’s markets and events such as the Atlanta Jazz Festival for IMPACT, talking to people about the hazards of excess exposure to the sun and telling them what they can do to protect their skin.

"What I really like about Ellis’ work is he is such an approachable person,” Seavey said.

She said Ellis is already reaching out to other communities, public health departments, and regional cancer centers to drum up support, whether it be financial or just supporting more public awareness.

IMPACT has already lined Ellis up to be an intern with a program assisting medical students interested in dermatology and working to raise awareness on college campuses and provide community skin cancer prevention programs, Seavey said.

“Ellis has really proven himself,” she said. “When he says he’s going to do something, he does it. He follows through, and he’s definitely earned trust.”

Ellis said that initially DermaTeens was only focused on the educational side of skin health, with the idea of teens helping other teens.

“However, when we noticed other barriers to skin cancer prevention (financial, cultural, etc.), we decided to create programs and initiatives that worked together with our educational activities,” he said. “I believe that in order to make a true impact, you have to be willing to approach issues from multiple angles, especially when it relates to health.”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ellis Schroeder

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ellis Schroeder

Ellis isn’t sure whether his passion will inspire him to become a doctor, work in health with an agency such as the CDC or stay on the nonprofit side.

"I still hope in whatever work I am involved in, I am spreading the word about these causes I care about as a teenager," he said.

IMPACT’s Seavey said the passion, interest and work he puts in as an advocate of safety and cancer awareness is “phenomenal.

"It is kind of remarkable to see in someone that age," she said.

Skin Cancer Statistics

· Skin cancer is now the most common type of cancer in the U.S. (Source: National Institute of Health)

· More than two people per hour in the USA die from melanoma. (Source: American Cancer Society)

· 1 and 5 will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. (Source: National Institute of Health)

· Majority of skin cancer cases are preventable through the application of sunscreen and the practice of other sun safety habits. (Source: Centers for Disease Control)

· Community skin cancer prevention programs today could prevent an estimated 230,000 melanoma skin cancers and save 2.7 billion dollars in treatment costs by 2030. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

· Skin cancer rates among American adults have tripled in the last 30 years despite it being the most easily preventable cancer. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

· Just one blistering sunburn under 18 doubles a person’s lifetime risk of melanoma. (Source: MD Anderson)

Tips for staying safe in the sun

• Use SPF 30 sunscreen with UVA/UVB protection

• Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, and more frequently if in the water

• Seek shade - particularly between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun is at its strongest

• Wear a hat and sunglasses with U.V. protection

• Choose UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing and swimsuits

• Keep babies younger than 12 months completely covered or in the shade

Source: Impact Melanoma