Over 8,600 American men will die this year from melanoma. In fact, men over 50 are more than twice as likely as women to develop and die from skin cancer. Men are also about twice as likely to develop basal and squamous cell skin cancers as well. And it's not just men over 50 who are at risk: a recent study by the Mayo Clinic has found that the rates for squamous and basal cell carcinoma have jumped for people under 40. "While clearly melanoma is a concern for all demographics, it is at a crisis level for men," said Perry Robins, MD, President of The Skin Cancer Foundation.
Why is this? Men aren't naturally more vulnerable to skin cancer than women. The problem is twofold: more sun exposure, and fewer visits to the doctor.
Men are spending more hours in the sun than women, but are less likely to use sunscreen, according to a recent study. It's a high-risk combination that can up their chances of getting skin cancer. The study, from the National Sun Protection Advisory Council, found that men spend 36 hours a week in the sun – 10 hours a week more than women – and only 25 percent of them make a concerted effort to stay out of the sun, compared to 39 percent of women. Men tend to log the extra hours when working outdoors and while playing sports.
Men typically have less hair to cover ears and scalp, two areas where they develop skin cancer more often than women. Men also top women in skin cancers of the often-exposed back, chest, and shoulders.
How men take care of themselves also plays a role. According to a 2003 Lou Harris poll, three times more men than women avoided doctors when they had a persisting minor medical symptom, and many neglected to get routine screenings for such conditions as cancers, even if sent reminders and offered free testing by their health plans.
The combination of exposure and neglect is especially dangerous when it comes to melanoma. A 2001 study by the American Academy of Dermatology found that middle-aged and older men are the least likely to perform self-exams or visit a dermatologist. Considering that men's melanomas more often develop on the difficult-to-see upper back, men are less likely to detect the disease early, when it is easily cured. "A melanoma no thicker than a dime can pose a significant risk of mortality," said Allan C. Halpern, MD, Chief, Dermatology Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City.
Men also tend not to bother with sun protection techniques. If they use sunscreen at all, they may put on too little and reapply too seldom. "If they wear a hat, it's usually a baseball cap, which is better than nothing, but protects only the forehead and front of the face, not the neck or side of the face," explained Jeffrey Dover, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine.
"The keys to overcoming melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, are prevention, early detection, and prompt treatment," said Dr. Allan Geller, Research Associate Professor of Dermatology, Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Halpern added, "Once we make men aware that there is an epidemic going on, we need to encourage them to take the necessary steps to protect themselves."
It is more important than ever for men of all ages to become aware of the risks of unprotected sun exposure and take precautions, including using sunscreen daily, seeking the shade when outdoors, wearing UV-protective sunglasses, examining their skin on a regular basis, and obtaining a yearly skin exam from a professional.