Not Enough Melanoma Survivors Limit Exposure to Sun or Protect Skin

Not Enough Melanoma Survivors Limit Exposure to Sun or Protect Skin
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Melanoma survivors and sun exposure

While most melanoma survivors are more likely to limit their exposure to the sun and protect their skin than people who never had the disease, a considerable number still report getting sunburns and some continue to used a tanning booth, according to a new study.

Because melanoma survivors have a nine-fold risk of receiving a second melanoma diagnosis, researchers said the findings are worrisome.

The study, “Sun Exposure and Protection Behaviors among Long-term Melanoma Survivors and Population Controls,” was published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Melanoma is considered a generally preventable cancer, with excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation being one of the strongest risk factors for the disease. Patients diagnosed with melanoma are at high risk of recurrence for at least 20 years after being diagnosed, and have a nine-fold increased risk of developing another melanoma.

For some cancer patients, having a cancer diagnosis is an opportunity to begin making positive changes in their health behaviors. In the case of melanoma survivors, it is critical that patients avoid sun during peak hours, seek shade, wear protective clothing, use sunscreen, and avoid tanning devices to avoid a recurrence or a second diagnosis.

To determine whether melanoma survivors are adopting healthier behaviors, researchers at the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at the University of Minnesota compared sun exposure and protection behavior in the past year in long-term melanoma survivors with people who had never had the disease.

The study included 724 melanoma survivors diagnosed with invasive cutaneous melanoma between July 2004 and December 2007 and 660 healthy controls, all between the ages of 25 and 59. Participants were asked about the time they had spent outdoors in the summer and about sun protection methods, like wearing sunscreen, wearing hats, and tanning. They were also asked to report the number of red or painful sunburns they had experienced, and whether they had used a tanning bed.

While the team found better sun protection behaviors in melanoma survivors than in the control group, certain behaviors were still not optimal.

Compared to the control group, fewer melanoma survivors spent more than one hour outside on summer weekdays (34.3% vs. 44.4%), fewer survivors had gotten a sunburn in the previous year (19.5% vs. 36.5%), and fewer had used tanning booths or beds in the past year (1.7% vs. 6.8%). Survivors were also more likely to often or always wear sunscreen, compared to the control group (61.8% vs. 38.4%).

But on weekend days, sun exposure was similar among the two groups, with 74.8% of the survivors and 79.7% of the controls spending more than two hours outside. In addition, nearly 20% of survivors reported having a sunburn in the previous year.

“At a time when rates of many cancer types are declining, the rising incidence of melanoma is worrisome,” assistant professor Rachel Isaksson Vogel, PhD, said in a press release. “People who have survived melanoma are at high risk of another diagnosis, so reducing exposure to the sun is really crucial.”

In conversations with some melanoma survivors, Vogel found that many patients just wanted to live their lives, socializing, exercising, or playing with their children outdoors. But she said that most of them had been diagnosed with stage 1 melanoma, when the disease has a 98% five-year survival rate.

“Because an early-stage melanoma diagnosis and treatment was likely a fairly minor experience for most survivors, they might not understand how serious an illness this is,” Vogel said. “Survivors of melanoma have a nearly nine-fold risk of developing melanoma again, and they can reduce that risk if they make sun protection a priority.”

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