(iVillage Total Health) - In this age of midriff-bearing, tank-top wearing or shirtless sun worshipping, warnings about cancer may not be what teens want to hear. But experts say educating children about skin cancer prevention is a community-wide challenge that should involve messages from family members and your child's friends, classmates, athletic coaches and other adult role models.
This multi-pronged approach was the basis of a recent study involving nearly 2,000 children entering sixth through eighth grades in New Hampshire and Vermont. Experts say that as children begin adolescent development, they are establishing their own identities and health care practices amid peer group pressures and their earlier protective sun measures decline.
Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School found that after two years of sun safety counseling and promotional efforts, children in the study who received targeted messages from peers and school and community members practiced better sun protection than children who did not.
As part of the study, researchers followed the students to beaches, pools and outdoor water activities to observe how much they covered up or used sunscreen. A portable machine that allowed students to observe skin damage not visible under normal light monitored real changes in the students' skin. Results of the study were published in the January issue of Pediatrics.
The Dartmouth researchers recommended that skin cancer measures and messages begin early in the middle school years and follow the same kind of multi-channel delivery method. The reason: skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States despite warnings about the harmful effects of the sun. More than 1 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer occur each year, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). The deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, is strongly associated with excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV), which can come from sunlight or tanning booths and beds. The ACS estimates that 59,940 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed and more than 8,000 people will die from melanoma in 2007.
Experts say teaching children early in life to minimize sun exposure by seeking shade and wearing clothing to protect their skin can help prevent them from developing skin cancer later in life. Wearing sunscreen or sunblock is also helpful, although many dermatologists warn that these products can give users a false sense of protection and cause them to remain in the sun longer than they should.
Parents and children should learn the warning signs of skin cancer, including melanoma, which is curable if detected early and surgically removed. Moles that change color, itch or become crusted can be melanomas. A mole that darkens or gets larger or an irregular and raised shape on the skin could also be a melanoma and should be checked by a dermatologist or pediatrician. Untreated, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body and cause death within a year of diagnosis.
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