As if veterans didn’t have enough to deal with after returning from deployment, recent studies have shown that they’re at risk for more than just trouble re-adjusting to civilian life—they’re also more prone to developing skin cancer. With many conflicts taking place in countries that are closer to the equator than the United States, soldiers are at greater risk for sun damage and are often inadequately prepared to protect themselves against the real dangers that ultraviolet (UV) rays pose to the skin and the connection these rays have to causing melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
A Sobering Study
Dr. Jennifer Powers, a dermatologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center led a study based on 212 anonymous surveys from veterans who went to a specific clinic in Nashville. The survey asked questions about how often the veterans had been working in direct sunlight during deployment, and how often they had used sunscreen and gotten a sunburn.
Just 13% of respondents applied sunscreen regularly, despite 75% of the veterans spent four or more hours working in the sun. 87% of the soldiers used sunscreen “sometimes” or “sporadically”. Unfortunately, sporadic use didn’t help much, with 63% reporting at least one sunburn during deployment, and 20% experiencing a blistering sunburn in the harsh desert climate. So how much risk does this pose for veterans? According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, just 5 or more sunburns over a lifetime can double the risk for melanoma, a sobering statistic.
While there are certainly limits to the study, the initial results reveal a significant danger to overseas troops—one that should be fairly simple to prevent. At the very least, the initial findings call for more study into the issue.
Access to Sun Protection
Unfortunately, the sporadic use of sunscreen by military personnel may also have to do with access to sun protection like sunscreen, glasses, hat, and shade. The study revealed that the respondents who were asked to work in the sun the most had the most minimal access to these resources. Getting these items to soldiers is the first step toward reducing the sun cancer risk.
Military Awareness of Sun Protection
Sun protection is not very important to the military, it seems, when preparing soldiers for deployment. The study revealed that less than a quarter of respondents received any warnings or training on the subjects. Dr. Theodore Rosen of Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston thinks this needs to change, as he told CBS news:
“When a soldier is first deployed to a foreign land, they’re oriented about all sorts of health risks… There are insects that they’re not familiar with. There are diseases that they haven’t been exposed to before. So I think this needs to be part of their orientation. These are areas with many hours of sunlight and if they’re going to be outside for their duties, it has to be stressed how important sun protection is.”
While sun exposure may seem less of a concern than other dangers that soldiers face during deployment, keeping our troops safe from potential skin cancer is definitely not a trivial concern, and one that should be taken more seriously by everyone involved with sending our soldiers overseas. Skin cancer can be extremely dangerous, but it is also often preventable and treatable if caught early. If awareness is increased, hopefully we will start having fewer veterans struggling with the consequences of extreme sun damage and skin cancer.
If you are a veteran, or have loved ones who may have increased their risks for skin cancer during deployment, the best way to prevent potentially severe skin cancer is with regular screenings. A board certified dermatologist can check for any suspicious lesions, provide skin care and protection tips, and provide treatment if necessary.
Dr. Diane Walder is a skin cancer expert and cosmetic dermatologist, with offices in Miami, Florida. Dr. Walder is a renowned resource for skincare and offers a wide range of treatments, including expert skin cancer surgery and aesthetic procedures for offsetting the cosmetic damage caused by the sun. Call (305-866-2177) today to schedule an appointment with Dr. Walder and her colleagues.