Doctor hopes free sunscreen at the fair will change habits

West End
There will be a new attraction at the State Fair this year: sunscreen. Free sunscreen will be available at 12 information booths around the fairgrounds.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2014

A doctor who lost her father to skin cancer is using one of Minnesota's biggest stages — the State Fair — to encourage people to use sunscreen.

Dr. Megan Wood grew up in Wayzata and is a resident physician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. She says her father, attorney John Wallace Wood, Jr., was the epitome of health.

Dr. Megan Wood
Dr. Megan Wood, a medical student at the University of Minnesota, is behind a push to provide free sunscreen at the Minnesota State Fair. Her father died of skin cancer in 2012.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"He was a lifelong athlete, went to college on a football scholarship. He was my softball coach when I was little. He was the commissioner of the Minnesota men's 35 and over baseball league for 25 years," Wood said. "Very successful, great role model. And he was just a super healthy guy that spent a lot of time out in the sun."

In 2012, her father died after being diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. Megan was in her second year of medical school.

"After he passed, about six or seven months later I started to get involved in melanoma advocacy and fundraising efforts. And that's when this idea kind of blossomed," she said.

"This idea" is simple: remind people to be careful how much sun they get, especially kids. Put out sunscreen so no one has an excuse. And do it at the Minnesota State Fair, the biggest outdoor gathering around.

Starting Thursday, her idea will become reality. The fair is putting out pumper jugs of sunscreen at its 12 information booths, free for anybody to use. Doctors like Wood hope it'll help spark a reconsideration about the sun — the way we began rethinking cigarettes decades ago.

As a University of Minnesota medical student, Wood conducted research on the topic at the fair last year. She and other researchers surveyed fairgoers about their use of sunscreen -- and then asked them if they'd use it if someone gave it to them. Wood said most fairgoers didn't use it, but 90 percent said they would use it if the fair provided it.

Wood got a grant from the Masonic Cancer Center to help start the project and there will be some observational studies of how well the plan works.

Pediatric dermatologist Ingrid Polcari, who was also Wood's mentor on the project, says sunscreen is a must. She talks about it like other doctors talk about car seats and putting infants to sleep on their backs.

Dr. Ingrid Polcari
Dr. Ingrid Polcari is a pediatric dermatologist at the Masonic Children's Hospital in Minneapolis and an advisor to the effort to provide free sunscreen at the Minnesota State Fair.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"We have new evidence that shows us that especially early childhood sun exposure is really important in impacting the risk of skin cancer," Polcari said. "I personally think that all kids should wear sunscreen every single day, if not avoid the sun during peak sun hours. Wear sun protective clothing. We need to be doing a better job of protecting our kids."

And like many things at the fair, the sunscreen available this year has a Minnesota connection: The Vanicream sunscreen is being donated by Rochester-based Pharmaceutical Specialties.

Wood, the medical student who made this happen at the fair, says she hopes its the start of a movement that can grow beyond the Great Minnesota Get Together.

"I hope people see this at the fair and start to expect it at other outdoor venues," Wood said. "You know, I want to create demand. I hope to see this at small venues, large venues, and I'm going to California next year, and my favorite thing to say is I'm bringing this all the way to Disneyland."