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Research Snapshot: Some melanoma survivors still practice unhealthy sun behaviors

Over the past 30 years, melanoma rates have been rising. In 2017, 87,000 cases are expected to be diagnosed in the U.S alone. While it is an aggressive cancer, it is highly treatable when caught early and  highly preventable in about 90 percent of cases. In honor of May being Melanoma awareness month, HealthTalk is shining a spotlight on research to combat rising diagnosis rates as well as persisting cases in those who have been previously diagnosed.

As spring and summer months approach, sun protection becomes more pertinent, especially for melanoma survivors. However, a recent University of Minnesota study found this segment of the population may not be taking necessary sun safety precautions. The study was led by Rachel Vogel, Ph.D, assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at the Medical School, in collaboration with researchers from the Masonic Cancer Center and School of Public Health.

The study, recently published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, looked at more than 700 melanoma survivors and surveyed what sun protection methods they used. Long-term melanoma survivors reported healthier sun exposure and protection behaviors than controls, however, many still reported getting a painful sunburn in the past year. Vogel suspects melanoma survivors participate in dangerous behaviors simply because lifestyle changes are difficult, especially when rooted in social activities.

“Educational and behavioral interventions are needed in this high-risk group to reduce their risk of future melanoma,” said Vogel, who is also a Masonic Cancer Center member. “We are in the preliminary stages of determining what such an intervention might entail. Before this can be done, we must understand what barriers exist that prevent survivors from discontinuing risky sun exposure.”

Still, Vogel recognizes a promising finding in the study.

“I would say, thankfully, some of our current messages appear to be working,” she said.

Current messages stress the adoption of simple behaviors including using sunscreen, covering up with clothing and sitting in the shade during peak hours.

“I would encourage patients who have survived melanoma to make these protection methods routine and to limit sun exposure whenever possible, regardless of how long it has been since their diagnosis,” Vogel said.

Moving forward, the  interdisciplinary research team hopes to develop an easily-disseminated intervention to address sun protection barriers and promote behavior change.

Lori Strayer, Leah Engelman, Heather Nelson, Ph.D., M.P.H., Anne Blaes, M.D., Kristin Anderson, Ph.D., M.P.H., and DeAnn Lazovich, Ph.D., M.P.H., all collaborated on the study.

(This study was also featured on NPR earlier this year)

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