An Interview with Christopher Fay, the Medical Student Leading America’s Fight Against Skin Cancer

Sep 6, 2023

The following is a conversation with Christopher Fay, a medical student at UMass Chan Medical School and a valuable teammate here at IMPACT Melanoma. 

You might remember Chris from our earlier feature, “Awareness Begins with Access: Medical Student Christopher Fay Leads the Charge for Sunscreen Utilization in Worcester, MA.”

Since that piece ran, Chris has been even busier in Massachusetts and beyond, and we’re excited to reconnect with him and hear his updates.

Deb Girard, our Executive Director, has worked closely with Chris over the years and mentioned, “Chris is probably the most important medical student in the country when it comes to skin cancer prevention. His dedication and proactive approach have not only made him a role model for hundreds of other students nationwide but have also positioned him as a leader in the movement to prevent skin cancer.”  

We are delighted to share more of his IMPACT(ful) story as it continues to unfold …   

Can you tell us about how you first started your work in Worcester, Massachusetts? 

It’s hard for me to believe all of this started in a very small library carrel at the medical school, where one late summer evening I was thinking about the toll of melanoma that I witnessed in the hospital and in my own family. I found myself asking, “if skin cancer is the most preventable form of cancer, why is it not being prevented?”

I began looking into skin cancer prevention efforts, and that’s when I learned about IMPACT Melanoma. I also discovered that Worcester was the only region in the state with a rising trend of melanoma and became determined to bring free sunscreen dispensers to my community.

With guidance from IMPACT Melanoma, I met with the City of Worcester mayor and city councilors in person to present my idea, and I ultimately secured over $49,000 of funding from medical school awards and city funds to make this a reality in Worcester.

Over the course of a year, I met with key stakeholders (Health and Human Services Commissioner, Public Works and Parks Commissioner, Parks and Recreation Assistant Commissioner, Worcester Housing Authority CEO, City of Worcester Director of Human Resources, and Worcester Red Sox Senior Vice President, national health insurance companies, and many more!), attended site visits to pick dispenser locations, and trained staff to maintain sunscreen dispensers.

We installed 54 dispensers at 11 public parks, 7 Worcester Housing Authority locations impacting 7,000-10,000 clients, 6 locations where 440 of the city’s outdoor workers meet before starting their shifts, and Worcester Red Sox’s 9,508 seat Polar Park.  

IMPACT Melanoma was excited to work with you on the North Shore project. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?  

The success of the Worcester initiative provided a blueprint for replication. Teaming up with IMPACT Melanoma, I served as project manager replicating the Worcester project in eight north shore towns: Salem, Nahant, Lynn, Swampscott, Marblehead, Danvers, Peabody, and Beverly.

I personally coordinated with each of these city’s public health departments and park and recreation departments, and thanks to support from IMPACT Melanoma we brought 135 free sunscreen dispensers to these towns.  

What are you most excited about with this work? 

I am honored and humbled to be able to work with countless passionate students across the country actively engaged in bringing skin cancer prevention initiatives to their communities. The projects in Massachusetts first caught the attention of the local press and then quickly spread over social media.

After medical students began reaching out to me about tips and tricks for starting these projects in their own community, I created detailed support material for how to bring free sunscreen dispensers (and many other types of skin cancer prevention initiatives) to new communities.

I coordinated with IMPACT Melanoma and the national Dermatology Interest Group Association to present this work and then distribute this material to medical students attending all schools with a recognized Dermatology Interest Group. The first Thursday of every month, IMPACT Melanoma and I hold an “office hours” for students from dozens of medical schools across the country, where I help guide skin cancer prevention projects.

As of my last check, we have engaged with over 225 medical students! I frequently will hop on Zooms when students are meeting with their local government officials to help answer any questions and discuss what worked well with the projects in Massachusetts.

I am beyond excited by how this has grown into a nationwide revolution involving hundreds of students who are eager to make a real difference in their communities. 

You’re also passionate about research. What are you focusing on? 

I am currently working under the mentorship of Dr. Nicole LeBoeuf, MD, MPH, Vice Chair of Dermatology at Brigham/Dana-Farber Cancer Center, where most of my research focuses on cutaneous oncology and oncodermatology. 

Most relevant to the free sunscreen dispenser initiatives though, I was fortunate to receive the David Mandelbaum Medical Student Grant from the American Skin Association, a crucial support for one of my research projects in partnership with IMPACT Melanoma. This project involves a nationwide study on the usage of free sunscreen dispensers, which will help us collect valuable data to enhance these initiatives. 

You’ve been actively involved in education and advocacy beyond the sunscreen dispenser initiatives. Can you tell us more? 

I’m particularly proud of the student organization “Practice Safe Skin” that I started at UMass Chan Medical School. This has grown into one of the most active student organizations on campus, where we regularly provide sun safety education to outdoor workers, youth groups, and other vulnerable populations.

IMPACT Melanoma has actively supported this student organization, frequently providing sun safety items we can distribute at no cost. I also worked with the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention and the Dean of our school to get UMass Chan Medical School recognized as a Skin Smart Campus.

Since then, I partnered with another medical student to found a student organization that focuses on reducing indoor tanning among college students around the country.

Another project I loved working on was bringing “No Sun for Babies” to UMass Memorial Medical Center. Supported by a hospital grant and IMPACT Melanoma, I was able to bring backpacks of sun safety items (car window shades, UPF blankets, discount codes for UPF clothing, etc.) to parents of newborns at our OBGYN Department.

Beyond these initiatives, I have been thrilled to help organize free skin cancer screenings and work with dermatology residents and other students to start a free dermatology clinic with our Dermatology Department. 

What’s your battle cry regarding proper skincare and the importance of spreading sun-safe awareness? 

Damage from UV exposure is cumulative, so every little bit of protection still makes a difference in the long run. Even small sunburns, repeated over time, can significantly increase your risk of skin cancer. 

Your efforts in promoting sun safety have been widely recognized, including being featured in various news articles. How does this recognition impact your work? 

I think attention from the press helps raise awareness about the importance of sun safety. But, I also believe awareness really begins with access. I think if children have more access to and education about sunscreen, they’ll be more likely to use it and continue to do so later in life.

There are also community members of all ages where sunscreen is outside of their regular budget. An important part of these efforts is providing equitable access to our green spaces.  

Is there anything further you’d like to address here? 

We wouldn’t be in this position today without support from Deb Girard, the executive Director at IMPACT Melanoma, Laurie Seavey, Project Manager at IMPACT Melanoma, and City Councilor Kathleen Toomey, who have been the strongest advocates for these projects.

I have also met countless local government officials who deeply care for our community, and this has been remarkably inspiring. I feel so fortunate to be a part of such a wonderful, caring team. 

If you feel inspired to make a difference, please contact the IMPACT Melanoma team to discuss volunteer opportunities. 

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