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Children of skin cancer victims ignore sunscreen warnings

BU dermatology researcher conducts first study of family histories

A study by a Boston University dermatology researcher has produced a surprising revelation about behavioral psychology: children of those with skin cancer are just as negligent as the general population when it comes to protecting their skin from harmful sunburn.

Alan Geller, a School of Medicine research associate professor of dermatology, analyzed data from approximately 10,000 white children between the ages of 12 and 17. The data had been collected from the offspring of participants in the Nurses Health Study II, a national study that investigates the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women. Geller’s findings showed that instead of having better sunscreen practices than children whose parents did not have skin cancer, the children of mothers who had been diagnosed with skin cancer or who had a family history of melanoma were slightly more likely to report frequent sunburns in the past year. The same children were also nearly as likely to use tanning beds as their counterparts.

Geller says that the pervasive rationale of the teenagers he surveyed was that “it’s worth burning to get a tan.”

“Going into this I would have thought that the parent diagnosis of skin cancer would have had a stronger effect,” he says. “I would have thought that the child whose mom had been diagnosed with skin cancer would have been more likely to have had better sunscreen use and fewer sunburns than kids who had no personal or family affiliation with skin cancer. The surprise is the fact that the children in each of these groups were really quite similar to each other, far more so than I expected.”

 The study, Sun Protection Practices Among Offspring of Women with Personal of Family History of Skin Cancer, published in last month’s issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, was the first to study whether a personal or family history of skin cancer affects the sun protection behaviors of mothers and their children.

Geller, who believes that a higher risk of skin cancer is based partially in genetics, hopes his work will lead to better sun protection practices in mothers and their children through increased communication between dermatologists and patients and parents and children. He says that immediately upon making a diagnosis of skin cancer, a dermatologist should tell patients that their children are at risk as well.

 “The public health message is that everyone should be protected, but we really want to be especially vigilant in trying to prevent sunburns in kids with this kind of family history, because they are at greater risk,” says Geller. “What this study found is that in fact that is not happening, that at-risk children in this study had more sunburns than kids with average risk.”

 The good news, he says, is that skin cancer can be prevented if the proper sun protection is used. He advocates against the use of tanning beds and recommends applying at least a palm full of SPF 15 or 30 on all exposed skin surfaces. Sunblock, he says, should be applied 20 minutes before going outside and reapplied every few hours.

 “The important thing isn’t really the number of the SPF, but the vigilance of making sure that the skin is fully covered with sunblock,” Geller says. “Kids shouldn’t become hermits. They should go out, be out in the sun, exercise, play sports, and swim, but they should just be doing it wisely and with as much protection from the sun as possible.”