Skin Cancer Prevention: A Call to Action

With some five million people treated annually for all forms of skin cancer, at a cost of more than $8 billion, the U.S. Surgeon General recently issued a Call to Action report calling the disease a “major public health problem that requires immediate action.”  The aim is to stimulate business, healthcare, education, government and nonprofit sectors, as well as individuals and families to learn more about preventing skin cancer and take action. The work of Rutgers Cancer Institute behavioral scientist, Elliot J. Coups, PhD, and other Cancer Institute colleagues is cited throughout the report, providing evidence that supports this Call to Action. Dr. Coups shares some insight on the report.

Why is this Call to Action significant?

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, and unlike many types of cancer, the rates of skin cancer have increased in recent decades. Skin cancer is largely preventable, primarily through reducing ultraviolet (UV) exposure. For example, it has been estimated that up to 90 percent of the cases of melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, are due to excess UV exposure. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action raises awareness of the risks of skin cancer and emphasizes the importance of increasing national skin cancer prevention efforts at this time.

Why do you think people aren’t “getting the message” about the dangers of UV exposure?

One important reason is that many people aren’t fully aware of the risks of UV exposure and don’t appreciate their potential risk of developing skin cancer. Also, many people still consider a tan to be healthy and attractive, and that norm can create social pressure to engage in indoor or outdoor tanning. At Rutgers Cancer Institute, behavioral scientist Dr. Jerod Stapleton is leading several projects to examine the role that the media and social norms and pressure play in promoting tanning among young adult women. Other segments of the U.S. population may face other challenges related to skin cancer prevention. For example, at the Cancer Institute, we have also conducted several studies examining the sun protection beliefs and behaviors of Hispanic individuals in the United States. Although the rates of skin cancer diagnosis are lower among Hispanic individuals than non-Hispanic whites, when Hispanics are diagnosed with skin cancer it is more likely to be later stage cancer that is harder to treat. Rates of skin cancer have been rising among Hispanic individuals in recent years. In terms of their sun protection and exposure behaviors, we have found in our research studies that Hispanics who only speak English are more likely to engage in skin cancer risk behaviors (such as indoor tanning and sunbathing) and are less likely to protection themselves by seeking shade and wearing protective clothing than Hispanics who only speak Spanish. The results also highlight the important of developing and testing culturally relevant sun protection interventions.

What are some of the aims of the report?

The report outlines a number of goals to promote skin cancer prevention in the United States, including promoting opportunities for sun protection in outdoor settings, ensuring that individuals have the information they need to make informed, healthy choices about UV exposure, promoting policies that support skin cancer prevention, reducing harms from indoor tanning, and strengthening research and monitoring related to skin cancer prevention.

What are some ways that these goals can be accomplished?

There are a number of strategies that can be used to address the goals outlined in the Call to Action. For example, communities can provide shaded areas in outdoor areas that are used for recreation and play. There is also a need to include sun safety education in schools and workplace settings and to support policies related to shade planning in land use development. Also, health care providers can play an important role by advising their patients about the risks of excessive UV exposure from the sun, the importance of sun protection, and the dangers of indoor tanning.

Is this Call to Action a tall order to fill?  What will it take?

The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer is certainly a tall order, but it outlines the steps that will be necessary to stem the tide of skin cancer at this time. Achieving the goals and strategies outlined in the Call to Action will take considerable investments, as well as coordinated efforts of many individuals, communities, and government and non-government agencies. The time is right to initiate such investments and efforts in order to reduce the burden of skin cancer in the United States.

Along with prevention research at Rutgers Cancer Institute, a comprehensive treatment and clinical research program devoted to skin cancer is available.  Learn more about the Melanoma and Soft Tissue Oncology Program.