Young adults are at a significantly higher risk of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, than they were 40 years ago, according to a new study by the Mayo Clinic. Researchers found that the risk of young women developing melanoma is six times higher than it was four decades ago; the risk for young men is four times higher.
The increasing rate of melanoma is alarming because the overall trend of cancer rates is falling, researchers said. While previous studies have documented rising rates of melanoma, researchers found a higher prevalence than the National Cancer Institute reported, particularly among women in their twenties and thirties.
Researchers found that the rate of melanoma increased in men from 4.3 cases per 100,000 people between 1970 and 1979 to 18.6 cases per 100,000 people between 2000 and 2009. The number jumped significantly more in women, increasing from 5.4 per 100,000 to 43.5 per 100,000.
Melanoma is a tumor of the cells that produce the pigment melanin, which is responsible for the color of your skin. Although melanoma occurs predominantly on skin, it can occur anywhere melanin is found, such as the eye or bowel. It is much less common than other skin cancers, but is responsible for 75 percent of skin cancer deaths, killing about 48,000 people worldwide annually, according to the World Health Organization. Melanoma deaths account for $3.5 billion in lost productivity every year, according to the CDC.
The melanoma risk for young women is higher than mens because they often engage in activities that raise the risk of melanoma, such as sun tanning or using a tanning bed, researchers wrote.
A recent study reported that people who use indoor tanning beds frequently are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma, and we know young women are more likely to use them than young men, Dr. Jerry Brewer, lead researcher and dermatologist with the Mayo Clinic, said in a statement. The results of this study emphasize the importance of active interventions to decrease risk factors for skin cancer and, in particular, to continue to alert young women that indoor tanning has carcinogenic effects that increase the risk of melanoma.
In addition to UV exposure, risk factors for melanoma include having many moles or moles that have an abnormal shape or color, fair skin, freckling, and light hair, a family history of melanoma, and having received a severe or blistering sunburn as a child or teen, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 is one of the best methods of prevention against melanoma and other kinds of skin cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wearing sunglasses, hats and seeking shade during midday hours also helps.
I used tanning beds to get ready for homecoming and prom, Janey Helland, who was diagnosed with melanoma two years ago, told the Mayo Clinic. In college, I tanned before a trip to Barbados because I didn't want to get sunburned. I really didn't know what my future was going to look like [after I was diagnosed], or if I'd even have one.
Helland is now cancer-free and dedicated to teaching others about melanoma.
I would advocate that it's better to be safe than sorry, she said. My advice is to educate yourself and research the risk factors.
Even though the melanoma rate is increasing, the mortality rate is decreasing, according to the study.
People are now more aware of their skin and of the need to see a doctor when they see changes, Dr. Brewer said in a statement. As a result, many cases may be caught before the cancer advances to a deep melanoma, which is harder to treat.
Melanoma is most often treated with surgery to remove tumors, chemotherapy or radiation.
The journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings published the study on Sunday.