Say it isn’t so. A recent survey found that even people who have survived melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — fail to protect themselves from the sun, and even continue to tan.
Fortunately, they do protect themselves more than the average person, but researchers from Yale University found that among people with a history of melanoma, 27.3% reported never using sunscreen when in the sun, despite the fact that these lotions can protect against ultraviolet rays that increase the risk of cancer.
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Additionally, 15.4% melanoma survivors said they never or rarely stayed in the shade and 2.1% had even been to a tanning salon in the previous year. “That blew my mind,” said study author Dr. Anees Chagpar of Yale University to the Los Angeles Times. Chagpar presented the data at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.
The researchers looked at data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey, which asked 27,000 participants a variety of questions related to health practices, like sun care. Among the volunteers, 171 had a history of melanoma. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the skin cancer kills about 8,790 people each year, and The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be 76,690 new cases and 9,480 deaths from the disease in 2013.
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Melanoma survivors did take better care of their skin compared to the general population; more of the cancer patients than those not affected by the disease stayed in the shade and used sunscreen. But Chagpar says that isn’t enough to properly protect these survivors from recurrent growths. “Overall, melanoma survivors did take more precautions against melanoma than the general population,” Chagpar told MedPage Today. “Still, these results are really depressing. So much more could be done to protect against a recurrence of this deadly skin cancer.”
The results are especially worrisome given recent studies that documented rising rates of melanoma, especially among teens, who are also most likely to engage in behaviors that put them at risk of the cancer. Last spring, a Mayo Clinic study reported that between 1970 and 2009, the incidence of melanoma increased eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men ages 18 to 39. Driving some of the rise is the popularity of indoor tanning, despite the fact that in 2009 the International Agency of Research on Cancer declared tanning beds a human carcinogen, and moved them into the top cancer-risk category, along with cigarettes.
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Although the study found that skin cancer survivors may be more vigilant about their skin health than those not affected by melanoma, the findings highlight the importance of keeping cancer survivors compliant in protecting their skin, even long after the scare of the cancer has faded. As experts noted in USA Today:
Several previous studies have suggested such vigilance is hard to maintain, though some studies do find better compliance than the latest survey does, says Mary Tripp, a behavior researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. A possible weakness of the new survey, which has not yet been published, is that it relies on self-reported medical histories, which are sometimes inaccurate, she says.
But she says she has interviewed melanoma survivors who have let down their guard.
“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,” she says. “A lot of melanoma survivors have told me that it is very important for them to maintain a normal outdoor lifestyle.”
Remaining vigilant about protecting skin is critical to improving survival from melanoma. The good news is that while melanoma rates have been increasing over recent years, mortality rates have improved. More early-detection methods as well and quick and efficient medical treatments are likely responsible. But reducing exposure to cancer triggers can also contribute to the trend.