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Young People Ignore Threat of Skin Cancer

by Jennifer Wider, MD

(Washington DC, 7/8/04):  More than half of all new cancers diagnosed in the United States this year will be skin cancer. Most people get 80 percent of their lifetime sun exposure by the age of 18.  Unfortunately, young people are not getting the message about the health risks of exposure to ultra violet rays.

Only one in three Americans between the ages of 12 and 18 uses sunscreen, according to a recent study conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology. The study also revealed that 83 percent of teens have been sunburned at least once in the last year and roughly one-third have been sunburned on three or more occasions.

Sun exposure is not the only way for people to be exposed to damaging UV light. The study found that 26 percent of people under the age of 25 use tanning beds and most of those are women.

"UVB rays are what cause sunburns. UVA generally causes tanning," said David Hecker, M.D., a practicing dermatologist in Palm Springs, Fla., and diplomat of the American Board of Dermatology. "Now, new evidence has proven that UVA, which is what tanning booths mainly have and is what comes through windows, can contribute to skin cancer as well."

Skin cancer is on the rise in the United States. The diagnosis of all types of skin cancer has increased and melanoma - the deadliest form of skin cancer - has become the most common cancer among young adults aged 25-29, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reasons for the increase are under investigation, but the medical community has many theories.

"It is possible that the increased use of tanning beds in this country, the loss of the ozone layer, earlier diagnosis, the aging of the population as a whole, and improper use of sunscreen - which gives people a false sense of security to lie out in the sun - are all contributing factors to the increased incidence," Hecker said.

There are three major types of skin cancer. Bad sunburns which include blistering increase a person's risk of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Long-term exposure to the sun increases the risk of all types of skin cancer including the less serious types: basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinoma.

Melanoma accounts for six out of every seven skin cancer deaths. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital because if left untreated, melanoma can spread to other areas of the body. It tends to run in families and can arise in pre-existing moles or develop on its own.

Basal-cell carcinoma is the most common and rarely metastasizes, or spread to other parts of the body. If left untreated it can invade surrounding tissues and cause disfigurement. Squamous-cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer. It can metastasize or invade the surrounding tissues, if not treated early.

People can cut their risk of skin cancer by taking the necessary precautions. The American Academy of Dermatology has several recommendations: avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun's rays are strongest; apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher and reapply every two hours; wear protective clothing and a hat in the sun; and seek shade as much as possible.

The safety of tanning salons is not well-established and continuous use will likely raise a person's risk of skin cancer. "The American Academy of Dermatology is trying to push for laws regulating the use of tanning salons by children under 18," Hecker said.  Presently, the use of tanning beds is poorly regulated.  In the meantime, parents should exert their influence on their children and not allow tanning bed use in those under 18. 

The Society for Women's Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its Board of Directors.

Created: 7/8/2004  -  Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Reviewed: 7/14/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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