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1 in 4 skin cancer survivors still tans without sunscreen - 10 melanoma prevention tips

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Skin cancer survivors still tan

A whopping 25% of those who have had skin cancer do not use sunscreen when going outside for more than an hour, according to a surprising new study by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

The study also found that even larger numbers of people diagnosed with melanoma (a type of skin cancer) eschew hats and long sleeves, while two percent continue to use indoor tanning beds despite several other studies that confirm they lead to skin cancers. The study’s findings were announced Monday at the AACR’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Anees Chagpar, a cancer surgeon and author of the study, says she finds the data on indoor tanning especially "shocking and concerning." She says the findings raise questions about whether some people might be "addicted" to tanning.

“We expected melanoma survivors to be extraordinarily protective since we know sunlight exposure and tanning increases the risk of a second melanoma,” Chagpar said. “But what was interesting, was that over one quarter said they didn’t use sunscreen. That blew my mind.”

The AACR study of 27,120 people included 171 who said they had a history of melanoma that, like other skin cancers, is linked to sun exposure and indoor tanning. It is most common in people with fair skin who have a history of sunburns. It can also run in families, and according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, about 9000 Americans will die from it this year.

Chagpur said that even though skin cancer survivors, in general, did better at protecting their skin with sunscreen and by wearing hats and long sleeves than those who have never had a melanoma, she was shocked that 27.3 percent of melanoma survivors in the study admitted to never using sunscreen while another 15.4 percent admitted to rarely or never staying in the shade.

Among the general population, 35.4 percent reported never using sun protection while 5.5 percent reported using a tanning bed within the last year, compared to 2.1 percent of melanoma survivors who admitted the same.

Melanoma is the fifth leading killer of men and the seventh of women among cancers, according to the American Cancer Society, and it has increased 800 percent in young women and 400 percent in young men from 1970 to 2009, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Since survivors are nine times more likely than other people to have melanoma in the future, doctors and other experts urge them to vigilantly protect their skin.

Unfortunately, numerous studies have revealed that such vigilance can be difficult to maintain, says Mary Tripp, a behavior researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Tripp also says that one possible problem with this latest study is that it relies on self-reported medical histories that are not always accurate.

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Nevertheless, she has interviewed melanoma survivors who have not been as careful as they should be about protecting their skin from the sun.

"When someone is first diagnosed, they are practicing sun protection, but as the years go by, maybe they tend to fall back on their old habits," Tripp said. "A lot of melanoma survivors have told me that it is very important for them to maintain a normal outdoor lifestyle."

Dr. Ali Hendi, a dermatologist and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation, agrees that it’s important to get outdoors. He says that anyone who wants to garden, golf, or walk outside should do it. However, he says, "be smart about it" by staying out of the sun at mid-day and using shade, sunscreen, and protective clothing.

"You can't change your genetic make-up, you can't change the kind of skin you have and you can't change previous sunburns," said Hendi. But, he added, you can lower your risk, even if you have already had skin cancer.

Regardless, melanoma survivors that don’t follow his advice are not alone.

"There are smokers who still continue to smoke after being diagnosed with lung cancer. There are a lot of people in our society who do things they know are not good for them," Hendi said.

Hendi sees seven or eight cases of skin cancers every day. “If they are caught early, they are essentially curable,” he said. “(But) we need to do a better job of educating people, as there is still a public perception that there is such a thing as a healthy tan.”

Hendi also said that people can be hooked on tanning, “Sunshine can have a euphoric effect on the brain like other addictive substances.”

So what can you do to protect your skin from the sun?

The Skin Cancer Foundation offers the following skin cancer prevention tips:

• Seek the shade, especially between 10 AM and 4 PM.
• Do not burn.
• Avoid tanning and UV tanning booths.
• Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
• Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day; For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
• Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside.
• Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.
• Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of six months.
• Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.
• See your physician every year for a professional skin exam.

SOURCES: American Association for Cancer Research (AACR); Skin Cancer Foundation