Melanoma on the Rise in Young Adults

(April 10, 2012)  More young adults, particularly women, are developing melanoma, a potentially fatal form of skin cancer, as reported by Jerry D. Brewer, MD, lead author of a recent study at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

The study shows that between 1970 and 2009, melanoma increased eightfold among women ages 18-39, and fourfold in men. Dr. Brewer stated, “We anticipated that we’d find rising rates, particularly among young women, but we were surprised to see such a dramatic increase in incidence.”

Melanoma ranks as the fifth most common cancer in men and the seventh most common cancer in women. However, among young adults (age 18-39), melanoma is the second most common invasive cancer, behind breast cancer.

In the study, researchers pointed to the rise in the use of indoor tanning beds as one of the main reasons behind the trend. However, childhood sunburns, as well as UV exposure in adulthood, may also contribute to melanoma risks. These findings appear in the April issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Other risks include family history of melanoma, as well as prior personal history of having melanoma. “People who have had a melanoma are at higher risk for having another,” Dr. Jennifer Stein, assistant professor at the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City said.  “Skin cancer awareness is up, and even though there is lots of information about the dangers of tanning beds, people still use them,” Stein stated. Popular television shows, such as Jersey Shore, glamorize tanning to the young adult audience.  

There have been efforts in several states to limit indoor tanning for minors. Some states introduced a special tax on tanning. Last year, California enacted a law prohibiting those under age 18 from indoor tanning. Illinois, Utah, Michigan, Arizona, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut are considering similar bans.

Dr. Alicia Terando, surgical oncologist at Ohio State University’s James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, says that if we follow the ABCD rule, we can identify suspicious moles on our bodies. ‘A’ stands for asymmetry, meaning that one half of the mole is a different size than the other. ‘B’ is for border irregularity. ‘C’ stands for color. Melanomas are usually brown, black, or tan. The ‘D’ is for diameter. Most melanomas are larger than 6 millimeters in size. She tells us, “A melanoma is the mole that stands out. It’s the ugly duckling.”

Early detection and treatment can be the difference between life and death when it comes to melanoma. Misdiagnosis or late diagnosis/treatment of melanoma can significantly affect the quality of life of a patient, as well as their life expectancy. The failure of a physician or other health care provider to refer a patient with a suspicious lesion or mole to a dermatologist in a timely manner can cost the patient their life. An untreated melanoma can travel to the lymph nodes and spread quickly throughout the bloodstream, which eventually is fatal.

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