Neil Box grew up in Queensland, Australia where he saw the effects of sun exposure firsthand. Now, in addition to teaching and his research into the biology of how skin reacts with UV radiation, Dr. Box is helping to raise awareness in Colorado about sun protection and sun-safe behaviors. We caught up with Dr. Box between important grant submissions to talk about his work.
C3: How did you get interested in melanoma research?
Box: Queensland is the melanoma capital of the universe. There’s a big hole in the ozone over Australia and we spend a lot of time at the beach. I had three relatives diagnosed with early-stage melanoma, but even beyond melanoma, you can see the effects of sun exposure. In Australia, people’s skin looks a lot older, and I remember as a kid seeing these old men who had been treated for non-melanoma skin cancers, with parts of ears or noses removed.
C3: Colorado is at altitude and we’re proud of our outdoors. Do you see parallels in sun risk or sun protection here?
Box: Colorado is a high UV exposure state, but people don’t realize it. In Queensland there was an awareness of sun-related issues. There’s a real need for that here. There will be about 1,400 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in Colorado this year and a little less than 200 people will die from the disease.
C3: In addition to research, teaching and writing grants to fund your work, you also co-founded the Colorado Melanoma Foundation (CoMelFound.org) in July 2013. Has it been challenging to be a communicator as well as a scientist?
Box: As scientists, we are always talking about our work, at conferences, in papers, in talks to various groups locally, nationally and internationally. Now with a website, a blog, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, it’s a new set of skills, but really we’re engaging in scientific communication all the time. And it all works together. Our goal is to help fewer people die from melanoma or be affected by other skin cancers. The more we can connect with people online, the more people we can reach with our messages about sun protection and screening. We are also trying to engage our community in supporting our melanoma research program, for example, by identifying melanoma survivors who could become mentors for new melanoma patients and by encouraging people to participate in some of our research projects. Also, with reduced funding from the National Institutes of Health, we’re definitely looking for ways to reach people who would like to help us continue our research.
C3: In your opinion, what is more important – research to find new treatments for melanoma and other skin cancers or outreach programs that improve awareness and screening?
Box: Both, of course. Here’s an anecdote: I happened to be at a meeting where I saw political candidates from the last election. One of them said, “Oh, you’re at the CU Cancer Center. What a hidden gem!” And it struck me as kind of a shame. Why are we hidden? Shouldn’t we be obvious in our community? As an academic institution, we should be making our knowledge as available as we can. The question is, how can we best serve our community to make an impact on disease rates?
C3: Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer, with 5-year survival rates for Stage III disease at right about 50 percent. How do you help people balance the risk of the disease against the desire to go outside and enjoy the sun?
Box: Melanoma isn’t one of the cancers that tends to run in families. More often than not, it happens in isolation; your family doesn’t have experience with the disease. People just know it’s dangerous. They read about it and get scared pretty quickly. We need education – people need to know what a diagnosis means and what they need to do to put up a fight. What we’re trying to do at the Colorado Melanoma Foundation and the CU Cancer Center is create basic community awareness of the effect of the sun. As you improve the community’s knowledge, people do more to cover up, more to be sun safe, and more to get the screening, diagnosis and treatment they need. As awareness goes up, safety improves. What we have to do is improve awareness.