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Looking at sun tanning in a whole new light

Beautiful tan. Healthy glow. These are just a couple of the perceptions – and misconceptions – regarding tanning. Cancer Care Nova Scotia and its partners are working to dispel these myths and expose the underlying danger of too much sun.

““The effects of over-exposure to the sun have been understood for a long time within the health care sector, but for many, a tan is associated with being healthy, rested and glowing,” says CCNS Prevention Coordinator Judy Purcell.

“We have a lot of work to do here, and everywhere, to shift this mindset,” she adds.tanning

Such cultural shifts do not come easily or quickly. “They require a comprehensive strategy,” explains Judy. “You need policies and education to help people understand why tanning is not healthy and supportive environments to encourage adoption of sun-safe practices.”

Such well-integrated approaches have been used successfully in the past. Prevention programming through education, cessation programs, increased taxes and the creation of smoke-free public places together have resulted in reduced smoking rates in Nova Scotia. Education and awareness around the importance of seat belt use in reducing risk of injury and death and legislation mandating their use is another example where a comprehensive approach to changing behaviour has contributed positively towards the health of Nova Scotians.

With both tobacco and seat belt use, we were asking people to change their thinking and their behaviour. “Tanning is no different. We can learn from the successes of health promotion initiatives like these,” says Judy.

Past successes in changing behaviour around tobacco and seat belt use are also cause for optimism, she notes. “Today, we wouldn’t think of driving without a seat belt and it’s rare to see someone lighting a cigarette in a public place or smoking around children. We have reached the tipping point where the social norm is to be tobacco-free --- where the public expects a smoke-free space.”

The risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is directly linked to over-exposure to ultra-violet radiation from natural sources like the sun or artificial sources like tanning beds. Two years ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer moved tanning beds to its highest cancer risk category: “carcinogenic to humans.”

 In Nova Scotia, there were 244 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in 2008, accounting for 4.5% of all cancers, says Gordon Walsh, an epidemiologist with Cancer Care Nova Scotia. “The incidence rate in Nova Scotia tends to be higher than the national average.”

The incidence rate is also increasing, he notes. Between 1992 and 2008, there was a 50% jump in the rate of melanoma for men and women in Nova Scotia.

That reality is spurring Cancer Care Nova Scotia, the government, health groups, and community organizations to make Nova Scotians aware of the health risks associalated with tanning. An entire section of the CCNS website is devoted to supporting sun safety policy and practice with a focus on settings frequented by children.

“We are working together to raise awareness about sun safety and let people know how they can protect themselves and children in their care,” says Judy.
The message, she stresses, is a reasonable one. “We’re not saying avoid the sun at all costs, but there are things we can all do to prevent over-exposure. Actively trying to get a tan will almost certainly guarantee over-exposure. So, lying on the beach or using a tanning bed is not a safe practice. But, do get outside and be active. Just remember to cover up and protect your skin.”

This message is starting to have an impact. Many parents, for example, no longer think of sending young children out to play in the sun without proper protection. The message is getting through to adults, too as they are also taking precautions to protect themselves from the sun.

“This is an important start,” says Judy. “It indicates an understanding of the risk associated with tanning and the need to minimize that risk. Older children, teens and young adults however, continue to tan and are much less likely to use sun protection. There is still lots of work to do.”

Simple behaviours that can protect the skin from overexposure to the sun’s UV rays include: reducing sun exposure between 11 am and 4 pm; seeking shade or creating your own shade; covering up arms and legs; using sunscreen and wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

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