Serving in the Sun

When her brother-in-law, a West Point officer, returned from deployment in Iraq with sun damage, Jennifer Powers, MD, had a hunch that our troops are not being properly protected from skin cancer.

The Vanderbilt University dermatologist then conducted a study of veterans who served overseas in the past decade—mainly in sun-intense regions in the Middle East — and her initial results have shown that indeed, skin cancer prevention in the military needs to be improved. “I look forward to sharing information from the study with military officials to develop the best strategies for making this happen,” noted Dr. Powers.

According to the pilot study conducted by Powers and colleagues at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, 77 percent of military personnel reported being exposed to bright sunlight for more than four hours a day, and only 27 percent had access to sunscreen.

Sixty-two percent of the veterans reported being sunburned when serving, a major risk factor for melanoma. Studies show that occasional, intense sun exposure, the kind that leads to sunburn can multiply your risk of developing melanoma. ”We know that melanoma risk increases with out-of-the ordinary, high-dose exposure to UV,” said Powers. “This is a unique experience where you’re taking a soldier at much higher latitude and moving him or her closer to the sun in a brief period of time,” she said.“This particular group demands our attention. “

Dr. Powers presented the study, funded by a research grant from The Skin Cancer Foundation, at the recent World Congress on Cancers of the Skin, a biennial international conference founded by the Foundation in 1983. “Literally without this funding, this study would not have happened,” said Powers. “It’s such a tough research climate, and the Foundation gave me the resources and time.”

More than 1,000 physicians attended this year’s Congress, which convened in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Published on November 3, 2014