Despite a growing awareness of the dangers of too much exposure to the sun, more Americans than ever are being diagnosed with melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, according to new data.
The incidence of melanoma has grown from 22.2 cases per 100,000 people to 23.6 cases per 100,000 people, researchers say. And most significantly, more Americans are dying from the disease, according to the report in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Dermatology .
The researchers have projected that about 10,100 Americans will die from melanoma in 2016, up from the 8,650 deaths initially calculated in 2009. Overall, more Americans are encountering melanomas in both early and later stages, the researchers said.
The study finds that rates of melanoma has been steadily rising over the last seven years. The new data from 2016 shows one in 54 people will be diagnosed with invasive melanoma, compared with one in 58 in 2009, according to the researchers who reviewed melanoma incidence rates and deaths.
The lifetime risk for “in situ melanoma” — which involves only the top layers of skin — has risen even more rapidly, from one in 78 people in 2009 to one in 58 today. In situ melanoma can become invasive. The odds of developing either type of melanoma, in situ or invasive, over a lifetime has surged to one in 28 people, the study found.
Actual Melanoma Rates are Probably Even Higher
Melanoma diagnoses are being under-reported, the study found, meaning that actual rates are likely even higher. That’s because melanoma is not a reportable disease in many states and “some tumors that are biopsied and excised in an outpatient setting may miss hospital tumor registries if they are processed in non-hospital pathology laboratories,” researchers stated.
Overall, an estimated 76,380 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2016, said a team led by Dr. Alex Glazer of the National Society for Cutaneous Medicine in New York City.
Genetic predisposition is a major risk factor for melanoma, and several melanoma susceptibility genes have been identified. Still, “there’s no question that sun exposure plays a role,” said dermatologist Alysa Herman, M.D. , a skin cancer surgeon affiliated with Baptist Hospital, Doctors Hospital and South Miami Hospital. She adds that infrequent but intense exposure to the sun, sometimes leading to sunburn, can increase a person’s risk for melanoma.
A growing number of young adults are being diagnosed with skin cancer, and that trend includes an increased incidence in melanoma cases, she said.
“It’s shocking to me when I see young people who are tanned or burned,” Dr. Herman said. “Skin cancer was once a disease of older people. It’s really hard to get young people to change their behavior.”
Early Detection’s Impact
Previous studies have indicated that diagnosed cases of invasive melanoma are rising more rapidly than the melanoma death rate, suggesting that earlier detection is having an impact. However, that trend seems to have reversed based on the new findings, suggesting that early detection has yet to make a significant impact on the death rate from melanoma.
“Despite the 2014 Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer, this study’s results demonstrate that the incidence of invasive melanoma in the United States is increasing on a lesser trajectory in the last 7 years than the mortality rate…” the study’s authors concluded.
Here are tips for the best protection against skin cancer:
- Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30 daily. Reapply at least every two hours when outside (you need an ounce to cover most of the body.)
- Wear protective clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with total UV protection.
- Avoid over-exposure to the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., if possible. And definitely avoid getting a sunburn.
- Do monthly self-examinations of your skin and see a physician once a year for a professional screening exam. You can use online resources from skincancer.org  to help you recognize moles or growths on your skin that may be developing into skin cancer.
- Stay away from tanning salons. Just one indoor tanning session can raise the risk of melanoma by 20 percent.