The incidence of melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — has doubled over the last three decades and is on track to remain high unless Americans take more precautions to protect themselves from ultraviolet radiation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.
CDC researchers used data from the agency’s National Program of Cancer Registries and the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program (SEER) to help determine long-term trends in U.S. melanoma rates. The findings, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, reveal that the incidence of melanoma more than doubled during the study period, rising from 11.2 cases per 100,000 people in 1982 to 22.7 cases per 100,000 in 2011.
“The rate of people getting melanoma continues to increase every year compared to the rates of most other cancers, which are declining,” Dr. Lisa Richardson, the director of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, said in a statement. “If we take action now, we can prevent hundreds of thousands of new cases of skin cancers, including melanoma, and save billions of dollars in medical costs.”
Non-Latino whites had the highest incidence of melanoma by far, with 24.6 cases for every 100,000 people, the report shows. At the other end of the spectrum were African Americans, with 1 case per 100,000 people, along with Asians and Pacific Islanders, who had 1.3 cases per 100,000 people. Latinos also had a low incidence, with 4.1 diagnoses for every 100,000 people.
Through age 49, women were more likely than men to be diagnosed with melanoma, the report said. This is partially due to the popularity of indoor tanning among younger white women — nearly one-third of white women between 16 and 25 visit a tanning parlor at least once a year, according to a 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine. From age 50 on, however, the incidence was higher in men, who are less likely to use sunscreen or other forms of sun protection, the CDC study said.
Health officials say more than 90 percent of melanoma skin cancers are attributable to skin cell damage caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation, primarily from the sun and use of tanning beds. “Nearly 40 percent of persons in the United States report sunburn each year,” the CDC reports, “indicating that many are not adequately protecting their skin from damaging UV that can cause melanoma.”
If current trends continue, the total number of new melanoma cases is projected rise to 112,000 by 2030, a significant increase from the 65,000 cases diagnosed in 2011. That would drive the annual cost of treating newly diagnosed melanoma patients up to $1.6 billion, nearly triple the $457 million spent in 2011.
CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden offered some common-sense advice to reduce the risk: “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 sunscreens protect against two types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA rays, which contribute to skin aging and wrinkling, and UVB rays, which cause sunburns. Both have been linked to skin cancer risk. Sunscreens with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 to 50 are recommended; experts say formulas that brag about SPFs higher than 50 offer no appreciable extra protection.
The CDC estimates that 20 percent of new melanoma cases currently projected to occur between 2020 and 2030 could be avoided by adopting comprehensive skin cancer prevention programs that involve public education, restricting teen access to indoor tanning, and encouraging communities to increase sun protection in recreation areas.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S. The vast majority of skin cancer diagnoses are basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, which are very treatable and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Melanomas account for only 2 percent of skin cancers, but they are the deadliest kind, according to the National Cancer Institute. Each year, more than 9,000 Americans die as a result of melanoma.
In July 2014, the U.S. surgeon general issued an unprecedented report on skin cancer, calling it a ‘major public health problem’ and urging everyone to take action to prevent the potentially deadly disease. The report pointed out that skin cancer is not only the most common type of cancer, but also one of the few that tends to strike people in the prime of their lives. On average, people who die of melanoma lose about 20 years of life expectancy.