Board-certified dermatologist discusses occupational risks of skin cancer for those who serve

SAN DIEGO, March 8, 2024 /PRNewswire/ -- U.S. veterans are at a higher risk of developing melanoma, one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer, likely due in part to the occupational hazards associated with active duty in countries near the equator where ultraviolet (UV) levels are higher. Additionally, members of the Air Force are at an even greater risk for developing melanoma due to long-term exposure to radiation caused by flying at higher altitudes.

Exposure to UV light increases your risk of skin cancer, including melanoma. Because melanoma can quickly spread to other parts of the body, prevention and early detection are essential.

"Most members of the military tend to serve when they're younger, which is when cellular mutations that cause cancer over time can start to develop," said board-certified dermatologist Rebecca I. Hartman MD, MPH, FAAD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and chief of the dermatology section at VA Boston Healthcare System, speaking at the American Academy of Dermatology's 2024 Annual Meeting. "Challenges in practicing effective sun protection, like inadequate access to sunscreen or protective clothing, and not having access to sun protection in times of conflict, contribute to this risk."

Recent studies show that many veterans who returned from the Iraq War said that they infrequently used sun protection or lacked an awareness of the skin cancer risk associated with not properly protecting themselves from the sun's harmful rays, according to Dr. Hartman.

"Over 40 percent said that they were not aware of the risks for skin cancer, and nearly 75 percent said they worked outside more than six hours per day," she said. "Most of the veterans returning from that war reported being sunburned."

Having more than five sunburns doubles the average risk of melanoma, while a single blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles the chances of developing melanoma later in life.

Unprotected UV exposure is not the only risk factor for melanoma.

Air Force members who are flying at higher altitudes additionally face ionizing radiation exposure, which can also contribute to cancer risks. As a result, those who fly should be screened for skin cancer more frequently in addition to wearing sunscreen.

Dr. Hartman noted that veterans are more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma at a later stage, when it is more difficult to treat, but that they tend to have better outcomes than the general population due to treatments that work throughout the body.

"Veterans have been treated very effectively by therapies that target the immune system," she said. "Immunotherapy tends to work better in men than women, and it works better for those who are older compared to those who are younger, mainly because younger people and women generally have strong immune systems that can eliminate tumor cells efficiently, and the remaining cells may not be easily detected by the immune system. This makes certain types of immunotherapy less effective for younger people and women."

Members of the military can reduce their risk of melanoma by seeking shade, wearing sun-protective clothing, and applying a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, according to Dr. Hartman.

"It's important for those in the military to use sun protection, especially when they're in sunny areas, and for both military members and veterans to look for changes to their skin regularly," Dr. Hartman said. "It they notice anything that looks different, is changing, or bleeding, or if they have a history of skin cancer or have had a lot of sunburns, then they should see a board-certified dermatologist."

To find a board-certified dermatologist in your area, visit

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About the AAD
Headquartered in Rosemont, Ill., the American Academy of Dermatology, founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 20,800 physicians worldwide, the AAD is committed to advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical, and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair, and nails; advocating high standards in clinical practice, education and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care because skin, hair, and nail conditions can have a serious impact on your health and well-being. For more information, contact the AAD at (888) 462-DERM (3376) or Follow @AADskin on Facebook, TikTok, Pinterest and YouTube and @AADskin1 on Instagram.

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SOURCE American Academy of Dermatology