Even people who have survived melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, often fail to protect themselves from the sun, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that of 171 melanoma survivors in a U.S. survey, more than 25 percent said they never used sunscreen when spending more than an hour outside on a sunny day. What's more, 2 percent said they had used tanning beds in the past year.
"They did do a better job of protecting themselves than the average person," said lead researcher Dr. Anees Chagpar, an associate professor of surgery at Yale University's School of Medicine. "But there is room for improvement," she added.
"Maybe we need to be more vigilant about education," said Chagpar, who was to present the findings Monday at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting, in Washington, D.C.
The results are based on a 2010 government health survey that included 27,120 U.S. adults, 171 of whom reported a history of melanoma.
Melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer, accounting for less than 5 percent of skin cancers in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Still, most deaths from skin cancer are due to melanoma -- which often spreads to other parts of the body if it's not caught early.
Because too much ultraviolet (UV) light is a major melanoma risk factor, experts advise everyone to limit their exposure. That means staying in the shade, donning sunscreen and covering up when you're in the sun, and avoiding the tanning salon altogether.
You would expect that if anyone would follow that advice, it would be melanoma survivors, Chagpar said.
And some did, her team found. On days when they were going to be in the sun for more than an hour, one-third of melanoma survivors "always" wore sunscreen, versus 17 percent of other Americans. They were also more likely to always wear a cap (31 percent did) or a long-sleeved shirt (12 percent).
On the other hand, 27 percent of melanoma survivors said they never slathered on sunscreen before spending more than an hour in the sun.
"We were very surprised by that," Chagpar said. What "blew her mind," though, was the fact that 2 percent of melanoma survivors visited tanning beds.
She noted that other researchers are studying the possibility that tanning is addictive for some people. It's possible, Chagpar speculated, that even some melanoma survivors may be hooked on the experience.
A dermatologist not involved in the study agreed that some of the findings are troubling.
"It is certainly concerning that a quarter of the melanoma survivors never wear sunscreen," said Dr. Hensin Tsao, a melanoma expert at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
On the other hand, Tsao said he was "encouraged" by the fact that melanoma survivors were more serious about sun protection than the average person. That suggests that the message is getting through to many, he noted.
What's not clear, according to Tsao, is whether people recently treated for melanoma were any more likely to protect themselves when compared to survivors who beat the disease years ago. It is possible that the further you are away from the experience, the less vigilant you'll be about UV protection.
"My sense is that if the study stratified by time from diagnosis, there would naturally be an erosion of the sun-protective behaviors," Tsao said.
But, Chagpar said, survivors need to remember that their increased risk of developing another melanoma "never goes away."
"There is no question that exposure to UV radiation increases your risk of melanoma," she said. "For survivors, it's particularly important to protect yourself."
According to the American Cancer Society, about 76,700 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in the United States this year. An estimated 9,500 Americans will die of the disease.
The data and conclusions of research presented at medical meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.