Rates of melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — doubled between 1982 and 2011 and will continue to rise without better prevention programs, a new federal report says.
The finding puts pressure on communities like Tucson, where the sun is almost always shining, to do more sun-safe education. One major local concern is the use of tanning beds by young people.
Melanoma causes at least 9,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. More than 90 percent of melanoma skin cancers are due to skin-cell damage from ultraviolet radiation exposure, federal health officials say.
The report is disappointing on many levels, though ideally it will underscore the importance of sun safety, says Denise Spartonos, community outreach coordinator for the University of Arizona Cancer Center’s Skin Cancer Institute.
Spartonos says sun-safe practices — putting on a hat and using sunscreen — need to become part of a daily routine and modeled for children, like putting on a seat belt or brushing your teeth.
Better and more comprehensive skin-cancer prevention programs could prevent 20 percent of new melanoma cases between 2020 and 2030, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention Vital Signs report released last week.
Among the federal report’s recommendations is restricting minors’ use of tanning beds.
While Arizona requires parental consent for minors under the age of 18 to use tanning beds, a study published in January in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) journal Dermatology says that parental consent laws have not been effective in curbing minors’ use of tanning beds. The only effective measure is to ban their use, the study says.
Currently 11 states prohibit minors under the age of 18 from using tanning beds. A bill proposed in the most recent Arizona legislative session that would have banned minors from tanning beds failed to get a hearing.
‘SCARY WAKE-UP CALL’
Melissa Griffin is certain that tanning beds, which she used as a teenager, caused her to develop melanoma. Griffin had a melanoma removed from her arm when she was 34, and later had another one removed from her torso.
Griffin, now 43, found the melanoma on her arm herself and asked for a biopsy. It looked like a small pink mole, she said, and her doctors were not worried about it. But she’d already had basal cell carcinoma on her face, which first appeared as a reddish pimple that did not go away.
Though she’d anticipated that the spot could be another basal cell, which is the mildest form of skin cancer, the diagnosis was far more serious.
“It was a really scary wake-up call,” said Griffin, who lives in Flagstaff and now gets skin cancer checks at the UA’s Skin Cancer Institute every six months.
“I went to the tanning bed in high school and college and I am sure it directly correlated. It significantly increases your risk.”
Griffin, is fair skinned with greenish eyes, which also puts her at a high risk.
“Melanoma does not have a good prognosis. I could be dead right now,” she said.
FAKE BAKE ALLURE
Griffin now works as a health -promotion manager at Northern Arizona University and uses her experience to educate students about skin cancer when she can. She is particularly concerned about off-campus luxury housing that advertise free tanning beds.
Several local luxury student housing complexes targeting UA students in Tucson are courting students with free on-site tanning beds, too.
In the JAMA Dermatology study, researchers from the University of Massachusetts and East Tennessee State University found that of the top 125 colleges and universities surveyed, nearly half had tanning beds either on or near campus.
Almost one-quarter of white women ages 18 to 35 years have used a tanning salon in the past year, and 15 percent tan indoors frequently, the researchers found.
The CDC says that indoor tanning exposes people to more intense UV rays than the sun, and that about 6,200 melanomas are estimated to be caused each year by indoor tanning.
And while older people are more prone to melanoma, Griffin’s case is not unique. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25 to 29 years old, the American Academy of Dermatology says.
The federal melanoma report included several suggestions for improving skin cancer prevention at a local level, including increasing shade on playgrounds, at public pools, and other public spaces; promoting sun protection in recreational areas; and encouraging employers, childcare centers, schools, and colleges to educate about sun safety and skin protection.
Spartonos of the UA Skin Cancer Institute says that while Tucson is ahead of most other cities in sun-safe education, we still fall behind Australia, where all schoolchildren wear hats whenever they play outside.
Hats and sunscreen must be easily accessible all of the time. And parents should put full-coverage hats on their babies. The Skin Cancer Institute sells appropriate coverage hats for babies locally at Summit Hut for $10.
At least 2,500 cases of melanoma are diagnosed in Arizona each year, though Tucson dermatologist Dr. Nancy Silvis says that number could be an undercount. Silvis is part of an Arizona Melanoma Task Force that is working to educate providers that a melanoma diagnosis must be reported to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
The task force formed in 2011 after local dermatologists noticed Arizona’s reported melanoma rates were low. They discovered not all providers knew that it’s mandatory to report a melanoma diagnosis and have been working ever since to get a more accurate count of the state’s cases.