Melanoma Rates Are Way Up

Although we should protect ourselves against the harmful effects of the sun year round, it’s even more important now, under the more intense, longer hours of the summer sun. A lot of us don’t, as a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attests.

Between 1982 and 2011, rates of new melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, doubled. During this interval, the rate of most other cancers began to decline, according to Dr. Lisa Richardson, CDC director of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control.

Most skin cancers are basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, and are highly treatable. They seldom spread to other parts of the body. According to the National Cancer Institute, melanoma accounts for only 2 in 100 skin cancers, but it is the deadliest kind.

In 1982, the melanoma rate was 11.2 per 100,000; by 2011, it was 22.7 per 100,000. Especially unsettling is that people were so much more aware of the dangers of the sun in the last years of the study, so you might expect the melanoma rate to have declined over those three decades of education.

But sun exposure – ultraviolet (UV) rays – is cumulative; it’s a form of radiation exposure, like X-rays, so the risk is higher the greater the exposure. “[W]ithout additional community prevention efforts,” the report said, “melanoma will continue to increase over the next 15 years, with 112,000 new cases projected in 2030.”

The cost, of course, rises along with the incidence of disease; the annual cost of treatment of new melanoma cases is projected to nearly triple from $457 million in 2011 to $1.6 billion in 2030.

The several forms of skin cancer overall constitute the most common form of cancer in the U.S. Although sun exposure isn’t exclusively responsible for the disease, more than 9 in 10 skin cancers stem from cell damage from UV radiation exposure.

Melanoma claims more than 9,000 lives every year in the U.S. In 2011, more than 65,000 melanoma skin cancers were diagnosed. According to the Los Angeles Times, non-Latino whites had the highest incidence of melanoma, 24.6 cases per 100,000 people, Latinos had 4.1 per 100,000, Asians and Pacific Islanders had 1.3 per 100,000 and African Americans had 1 per 100,000 people.

Although the incidence of melanoma doubled between 1982 and 2011, the mortality rate was fairly constant, according to the CDC researchers. That reflects better treatment, but this is one cancer that must be treated early – it’s not a watch-and-wait disease.

Through age 49, women were more likely than men to be diagnosed with melanoma, the report said, partly because they’re more likely to visit indoor tanning salons – almost 1 in 3 white women between 16 and 25 years old visit a tanning parlor at least once a year, according to a 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

But after 50, the incidence of melanoma was higher in men. They’re less likely to use sunscreen and other forms of sun protection, the CDC study said.

By 2030, the report estimated, effective community skin cancer education/prevention programs could prevent 230,000 melanoma skin cancers and save $2.7 billion dollars in treatment costs.

He might sound like a broken record, but apparently a lot of people still need to listen to CDC Director Tom Frieden, who advised: “Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a hat and clothes that cover your skin. Find some shade if you’re outside, especially in the middle of the day when the dangerous rays from the sun are most intense, and apply broad-spectrum sunscreen.”

Broad-spectrum (or full-spectrum) sunscreen is compounded to block both UVA and UVB rays.

Both are harmful to the skin. UVA rays are the ones that cause wrinkles and skin spots. UVB rays cause sunburn. Most people don’t use enough sunscreen and they don’t apply it often enough. (See our blog, “Sunscreen Labels Get a Pass for Accuracy.”)

Use a broad-spectrum product that’s rated at least 30 SPF (sun protection factor), and apply it thickly at least every two hours, more often if you’re sweating or swimming. Use it even when it’s cloudy – UV rays are powerful.

For the CDC’s guidelines to prevent skin cancer, click here.

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