Melanoma rates are rising: take action!

May is Melanoma Awareness Month—a month devoted to preventing the deadliest form of skin cancer, which—like all skin cancers—is highly preventable, so ideally, should not kill anyone. Despite this fact, the number of Americans diagnosed annually with new, invasive melanoma has increased by over 30 percent in the past decade (2012-22). Even more alarming, the incidence of melanoma among young people has reached epidemic proportions, rising more than 250% over the past 40 years, with young females at the highest risk. Melanoma is now the most common cancer for young adults aged 25 to 29 and the second most common form of cancer for people aged 15 to 29.

Although genetic predisposition may play a role in melanoma development, the two primary (and controllable) factors are excessive unprotected sun exposure and the use of commercial tanning devices. Not surprisingly, the highest prevalence of indoor tanning is found among young white women aged 18–25 years (31.8%-29.6%). Their use is even higher among young white women 18–21 years in the Midwest (44.0%), and those aged 22–25 years in the South (36.4%). While occasional use may not be so problematic, among white adult women who reported indoor tanning, nearly 58% reported tanning 10 or more times a year, while the average use was more than 20 sessions per year. Among the youngest tanners, white women 18–21 years, 67.6% reported tanning ≥10 times/year.

Here’s why indoor tanning is hazardous:

  • Indoor tanning devices can emit UV radiation in amounts 10 to 15 times higher than the sun at its peak intensity.
  • UV radiation is a proven human carcinogen.
  • More people develop skin cancer because of indoor tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking.

As a result of these facts, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an affiliate of the World Health Organization, included UV tanning devices in its Group 1 list of carcinogens, along with agents such as plutonium, cigarettes, and solar UV radiation.

Similarly, in 2014, the FDA reclassified UV tanning devices from Class I (low risk) to Class II (moderate to high risk). Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia ban UV tanning bed use for people under 18. Oregon and Washington prohibit their use by people under 18 without a doctor’s prescription. Australia and Brazil have banned indoor tanning devices altogether.

Even without the use of a UV tanning device, experiencing five or more sunburns doubles your risk for developing melanoma; and just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles your chances of developing melanoma later in life.

UV rays are genotoxic: they can damage DNA. Both UVA (deep penetrating) and UVB (superficial penetrating) cause DNA damage. Although free radical scavengers, like vitamin E and glutathione, work to “clean up” and remove these damaged DNA parts, if more damage is caused than can be repaired, the stage is set for cancer growth.

Melanoma also linked to alcohol consumption

A study published in 2016 in a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research found that alcohol consumption is also associated with melanoma development. Overall, one drink per day increased the risk of malignant melanoma by 14 percent. Among all alcoholic beverages, white wine was associated with the highest risk of melanoma, particularly in areas of the body that receive less sun exposure, such as the torso, rather than the extremities, head, and neck.

Catch melanoma early so it doesn’t catch you

Over 90% of melanomas are preventable and, when detected early, the five-year survival rate is 99%. The melanoma survival rate falls to 68% when the disease reaches the lymph nodes and to 30% when the disease metastasizes to other organs. Women 49 and under are more likely to develop melanoma than any other cancer except breast and thyroid cancers, while men the same age are more likely to develop melanoma than any other cancer. As a result, an estimated 7,650 people will die of melanoma in 2022.

About one-third of melanomas develop around existing moles; however, 70%-80% develop on apparently normal skin. Melanomas tend to form irregular shapes with variegated colors. However, they can also appear as bruise-like discolorations, with slight underlying pigment changes, or even as a dark streak under a toe nail or finger nail.

All of these facts underscore the importance of awareness, prevention and early diagnosis for skin cancer, and explain why the entire month of May is dedicated to melanoma awareness. In fact, the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention (NCSCP) has designated the Friday before Memorial Day as “Don’t Fry Day” to raise awareness of skin cancer prevention and to encourage everyone throughout the United States to protect their skin while enjoying the outdoors.

Prevention is easy. Here’s how!

Wear protective clothing. A brimmed hat, long sleeves and long pants, are very protective against UV radiation.

Wear sunscreen. Regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent. I actually recommend choosing a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and offering both UVA and UVB protection. I also recommend a physical block (such as zinc oxide) over a chemical block (such as oxybenzone). And remember: UV radiation doesn’t always correlate with heat, so it is important to wear sun protection daily—whatever the weather. UV rays bouncing off clouds, windows, sidewalks, snow, and other reflective surfaces are just as damaging as those hitting directly from above.

Eat your sunscreen! The foods you eat can decrease the photosensitivity of your skin and increase the effectiveness of your sunscreen. Red fruits and vegetables that contain lycopenes, such as watermelon, tomatoes, pomegranates, beets, strawberries, cherries, and red peppers, reduces the skin reddening and erythema caused by exposure to UV light, improving the effectiveness of topical sunscreen. (Use both!) These foods also contain other antioxidants such as vitamin C and glutathione, which counteract sun damage.

Avoid indoor tanning devices! (This one is super easy!)

Limit alcohol consumption, particularly if you have other melanoma risk factors, such as previous sunburns or indoor tanning device use.

See your dermatologist annually. Skin cancers develop over time—often in places that are hard to see—so it’s important to be checked regularly. Even pre-cancers can be detected and treated early…and the life you save may be your own!

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider, who should also be consulted with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.


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