You would think that people who were diagnosed with melanoma -- the most deadly form of skin cancer -- would be meticulously careful about using sunscreen, avoiding tanning salons and generally protecting their skin.
You would be wrong, researchers said Monday.
Melanoma tumors develop in the skin cells that make melanin, the brown pigment that protects skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. It is the least common type of skin cancer, but it can be the most dangerous. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 76,690 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year, and that 9,480 people will die from it. (By contrast, the National Cancer Institute says there were more than 2 million new cases of other types of skin cancer last year, but fewer than 1,000 deaths.)
The biggest risk factor for melanoma is exposure to UV rays, either from sunlight or artificial sources such as tanning lamps. Patients who have been treated for melanoma should know this better than anyone.
And yet, 27.3% of melanoma survivors who answered the 2010 National Health Interview Survey said they never wore sunscreen. Never.
“That blew my mind,” Dr. Anees Chagpar of Yale University, who analyzed the data with colleagues, said in a statement describing the study.
In addition, 15.4% of former melanoma patients said they rarely or never stayed in the shade and 2.1% had been to a tanning salon in the previous year.
A certain amount of sun exposure is unavoidable, but steering clear of tanning beds is simple. Public health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (among others) have emphasized the dangers of indoor tanning and challenged common myths, including that indoor tanning is safer than outdoor tanning (false) and that a tanning bed can provide a useful base tan that will reduce the risk of later sunburn (also false).
“More study is needed to understand why melanoma survivors practice, or do not practice, sun protection and to understand why they may continue to use tanning beds,” said Mary Tripp, a skin cancer prevention expert at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She noted that the survey may have had different results if it had focused on patients who had been treated in comprehensive cancer centers.
Overall, melanoma survivors were more likely than other survey participants to protect themselves from the sun by staying in the shade; wearing protective clothing such as hats, visors and long-sleeved shirts; and using sunscreen.
The findings were presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Assn. for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.
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