Men and Skin Cancer: Solving the Knowledge Gap

It turns out that men's infamous indifference to skin care may often just be a knowledge gap. Once they're filled in, new research shows, they can be mobilized to take an active, effective role in their own skin health.

Ground To Make Up

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It's well known that men take poorer care of their health than women do, especially when it comes to skin cancer prevention and early detection. Between outdoor work and play, they have more unprotected sun exposure than women do and examine their skin less often. Consequently, as the years pass, they develop more skin cancers - the majority of people who get melanoma, for example, are white men over age 50 - and they discover such growths later than women do, when they are harder to treat.

Are men, as many believe, simply too cavalier about their health to put on sunscreen or check their skin? One new study suggests otherwise. Alan C. Geller, at Boston University School of Medicine, showed that messages about the importance of sun protection just aren't reaching men. Geller's team discovered that advertisements for sunscreen, one of the crucial methods of UV protection, appear primarily in publications aimed at women. The researchers reviewed five years of advertising in 24 different magazines, finding that 77 percent of sunscreen ads were in women's mags. On average, four sunscreen ads appeared in each woman's magazine, compared with less than one in every six issues of men's magazines. (Not one ad in either men's or women's mags included guidelines for appropriate use of sunscreen.)

"Clearly, the ads aren't appearing in men's magazines because advertisers don't think they're interested," noted Geller. "But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - they don't learn if no one's teaching them."

Flicking the Switch

A second recent investigation shows that when given the health information they need, men respond. The study, from the Centre for Research in Cancer Control in Spring Hill, Queensland, Australia, found that a comprehensive education program can have a strong effect on how men take care of their skin. Monika Janda, PhD, and colleagues instituted the extensive program, called "SkinWatch," across 18 communities in Queensland, consisting of patient and physician education campaigns as well as the establishment of free skin cancer screening clinics. Information on skin cancer and skin screening was mailed to households; invitations to free screenings, signed Men and Skin Cancer: Solving the Knowledge Gap by famous athletes and celebrities, were distributed; and the screenings were promoted in the workplace and in local media.

The results were eye-opening. Men's screening rates went up in general, and the biggest increases were reported in men over the age of 50 - especially those in higher risk categories, such as men who had a mole removed in the past. A two-year follow-up showed that the more than 440 men who went through the program were twice as likely to perform self-examination of their skin, and four times as likely to visit a doctor for a skin exam. The authors credited both the men's increased understanding about skin cancer risks and the increased encouragement from doctors about the importance of early detection.

The wakeup call proved especially invaluable to the men over age 50. They accounted for almost half of the melanomas diagnosed. "By successfully motivating this high-risk group of men to attend screenings, the intervention program produced a high yield of skin cancers, hopefully catching the cancers at an earlier stage and saving more than a few lives," concluded Dr. Janda.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends monthly head-to-toe skin self-examination and an annual professional total-body exam.