Laurel Geraghty, a former editor at Glamour, is now a second-year dermatology resident at the Stanford.
October 1, 2014 - By Becky Bach
A decade ago, Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD, was writing feature articles for millions of readers, and enjoying the perks of working for glossy magazines — jetting to the Caribbean and Las Vegas, and attending celebrity-packed Manhattan fashion shows. As an editor at Glamour, life was fun and exciting. But after several years, she decided on a major career change.
Now Geraghty is a physician completing her second year in a dermatology residency at the Stanford School of Medicine. She is married and the mother of a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. And she’s keen to use her journalism skills to connect with her patients. Many people have questions about their skin, and Geraghty is eager to share basic skin care facts and correct misperceptions. She recently spoke about skin cancer, tattoos, sunscreen and more with writer Becky Bach.
Q: I’ll ask the most obvious question first: Why would an editor of a top women’s magazine drop everything to pursue a career in medicine?
Geraghty: I loved my work as a journalist. Writing articles about compelling news to help keep our readers informed was very fulfilling. Once, after I wrote an article about skin cancer for Glamour, the magazine received over 50 reader letters saying, “You helped me find my skin cancer!” That is incredibly rewarding. Skin care was one of my beats, and the more I covered dermatology and medicine, the more I found myself missing science. And I decided to make a radical change to explore that interest.
When I said that I wanted to go to medical school, my colleagues looked at me like I had three heads. But it wasn’t completely out of the blue. My father is a dermatologist, and I’ve always been interested in medicine. I was pre-med at Brown.
The more I covered dermatology and medicine, the more I found myself missing science.
My fiancé at the time — he’s now my husband — and I quit our jobs and moved to Oregon, where I am from. I had to take a few classes before med school. There was an adjustment period, going from journalism to medicine, but it has been a perfect fit for me. Working as a freelance writer covering dermatology and medicine for The New York Times and magazines, and then as a dermatology radio host on Sirius-XM during medical school, formed a natural bridge between the two careers. I’ve never regretted the change.
Q: What do most people not know about dermatology?
Geraghty: When people think of dermatology, they naturally think of the common things — acne, eczema, warts, psoriasis. But dermatologists are trained to diagnose and treat over 2,000 diseases of the skin, hair and nails, ranging from the mundane to the exotic.
No matter what brings a patient into the office, we are always looking for skin cancer. It is the most common kind of cancer there is and, if it is caught early, it is almost always curable.
Many patients worry about a benign skin growth called a seborrheic keratosis. People really sweat these lesions; they’re irregular, brown, raised and can get quite large, and so they worry about melanoma. But any dermatologist can spot one in a second and know that it’s not a concerning mole or a cancer — it’s totally benign.
But there are things patients are not worried about that they should be. If there’s any spot that’s changing or bleeding, or a sore that doesn’t heal, an ugly-duckling mole that looks different from all of its neighbors because of its shape, borders, color or size, get it checked out. It could be skin cancer.
Also, acne isn’t just for teenagers. We see tons of adults with acne in their 30s, 40s and 50s. There are many ways to treat acne, but the closest thing we have to a cure is called isotretinoin, commonly called Accutane. It’s an absolute life-changer and is a safe and predictable medication. Some patients are scared of it because of potential bowel problems or a reported risk depression, but the trials have demonstrated its safety. The exception is that patients should not get pregnant while taking the medication because it poses a high risk of birth defects.
Q: I know some people who shy away from sunscreen. They worry about the chemicals it contains. Is that nuts?
Geraghty: Dermatologists believe that sunscreens are safe and that sunscreen is the single most important part of any person’s daily skin regimen. In California, just five minutes of sun exposure a day can raise your risk of skin cancer and cause significant skin aging. Dermatologists spend our professional lives diagnosing and treating skin cancer, so we become hypervigilant. I layer on clothes and hats. I wear driving gloves to protect my hands. For those who are careful about protecting their skin from the sun, we recommend vitamin D supplements.
If you’re wary about the safety of sunscreen ingredients, you can avoid spray sunscreens because there are unanswered questions about the safety of possible inhalation of the ingredients. Also, there are two types of sunscreens: Chemical blockers absorb ultraviolet light, and physical blockers, such as zinc and titanium dioxide, reflect the sun’s light and are great for people with sensitive skin, including young children.
Q: Are tattoos safe? They’re everywhere. And do you have any?
Geraghty: When I went away to college, my mother told me she would not pay my tuition if I ever came home with a tattoo. So I never did.
Tattoos can be safe if done by a reputable professional using new and sterilized equipment. There is a risk of transmitting communicable diseases, including hepatitis, if needles are re-used or are not sterilized. There are a variety of different itchy, red, skin reactions that people can get from tattoo ink, especially red ink, which contains mercury sulfide, and that can be hard to deal with when it happens.
But tattoos don’t have to be forever. Skin lasers can break down tattoo ink within the skin, though the treatments can be painful and expensive. Some say the laser removal is more painful than getting the tattoo. Red tattoo ink is by far the most difficult color to remove and has the highest risk of causing a skin reaction, so avoiding red may be a good choice.
Q: What’s next for you?
Geraghty: I am excited about the possibilities, and am currently exploring options. I love practicing dermatology, getting to know my patients and helping them with their skin — nothing could be better. I also believe that it is critical for physicians to help educate patients through the media, whether that is through websites, television, radio or print media, and so I look forward to incorporating media into my medical career.
Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care, and Stanford Children's Health. For more information, please visit the Office of Communications website at http://mednews.stanford.edu.