Melanoma Rates Soaring Among Young Adults

The most dangerous form of skin cancer is becoming far more common.

As summer approaches, bronzed bodies and sun-kissed tans are heating up in Santa Monica. But so are some potentially fatal effects.

A new study published Monday in the journal, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found that the incidence of melanoma in radically higher among young adults than it was four decades ago.

Dr. Lawrence Piro, a Southern California oncologist, is seeing the growing melanoma trend at his clinic in Santa Monica.

"I've treated melanoma, myself, in patients as young as 16," he said.

The six-fold rise is particularly noteworthy in young females between18 and 39 years old, where the incidence of melanoma increased eight-fold from 1970 to 2009. The increase was four-fold in young adult males.

Although the study didn’t examine why the numbers have increased, the researchers said gender-specific behaviors such as tanning -- a popular activity among young women -- may be behind the alarming trend.

“The number one thing – stop going to tanning beds,” said dermatologist Dr. Jerry Brewer, one of the study’s authors. “All correlations point towards that as the reason for the increase.”

Piro agreed.

"2.3 million teenagers visit a tanning salon each year in the United States, and this is a very concerning behavior,” Piro said.

The findings of the new study were not all negative, though.

Although the incidence of melanoma is on the rise, mortality rates are improving. The risk of dying from the deadly skin cancer slipped 9 percent each year, researchers found.

Study co-author Brewer said that the better survival rates are most likely attributable to advances in early detection and awareness of changing moles.

According to Brewer, the important message to take away from the study is that young people can get cancer, and they’re not as invincible as they think.

Experts in Southern California said it's not a problem that can be fixed by sunscreen alone: attitudes must change.

Some Santa Monica beachgoers said they protect themselves by adding a hat and leggings to their sunscreen routine.

Doctors said individuals with blue or green eyes, freckles, moles, or red hair are at higher risk for development of melanomas.

Asians and those with darker skin have a lower risk, but may find themselves with more aggressive diagnoses when melanoma is found.

Experts caution that everyone should use SPF to protect themselves from sun damage. Those with several risk factors for melanoma should exercise careful sun protection and supplement their diets with Vitamin D, the major nutrient we normally receive from sunlight.

In response to the new study, the Indoor Tanning Association released a statement saying, “The authors attempt to make indoor tanning the story while ignoring other more likely risk factors such as heredity, sunburning outdoors and more frequent travel to sunny vacation locations over the last decade where severe sunburns are more likely to occur.”

The organization also pointed out that the population studied is not a representative sample of America. Minnesota, where the research was conducted, has a disproportionately high number of fair-skinned individuals who have higher risk for melanoma.

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