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Dispelling Myths to Decrease Skin Cancer in Latinos

young Latina girl runs on a crowded beach

There’s a prevailing myth that people with darker skin don’t get skin cancer. This misconception is causing problems. For example, skin cancer rates are rising among Hispanics in the United States; and in the past 2 decades, they’ve gone up nearly 20%. Additionally, Hispanics who get skin cancer are more likely to be diagnosed at later stages, when it is harder to treat.

Marimer Santiago-Rivas, PhD , a researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, is hoping to change this. With the help of a grant from the American Cancer Society, she is working to create a tool to help Hispanics and Latinos better understand their risk of skin cancer and make it a habit to protect their skin from the sun.

In 2016, Santiago-Rivas interviewed people who identified themselves as Latinos about their beliefs regarding sun protection and how they protect their skin from the sun.

“We asked participants to agree or disagree with statements such as, ‘Latinos with dark skin don't need to protect their skin from the sun,’” says Santiago-Rivas. “What we found is that people think Latinos are low risk. Overall, the participants had little awareness of the subject and don’t practice sun protection behaviors themselves.”

Santiago-Rivas plans to use her findings to develop relevant, persuasive educational messaging about preventing skin cancer that will resonate with Latinos. The messages will need to be culturally appropriate and tailored to the Latino community in order to be effective, says Santiago-Rivas.

Part of getting at the right messages for Latinos is asking the right questions. Santiago-Rivas, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, says that although there have been some studies of Latinos that used Spanish interview questions, they were developed originally in English, and then translated into Spanish.

“For example, the word ‘sunburn,’ when translated in Spanish, may be interpreted as ‘tanning,’ which is a different skin reaction to sun exposure. We would be asking different questions and getting different responses, even when the intention is the same across measures and languages.”

In 2017, she began using a new set of interview questions with new participants, building on lessons learned from the 2016 interviews.  She added new questions that focused on the influence of family and friends on skin cancer prevention. And she removed some previous questions—such as those regarding tanning booths/beds—when the interviews confirmed that Latinos don’t tend to favor artificial tanning.

Ultimately, Santiago-Rivas and her team will identify relevant sun protection messages to deliver in Spanish to the Latino community. They are also looking into the best way to deliver these messages – testing technology such as an app or website.

“We hope these public health messages will not only change beliefs, but they’ll all get people talking and change behaviors, too,” says Santiago-Rivas. “If they do, we can then build off this theory and framework so we can educate greater numbers of this population.”