Soaking up the sun may be a perk of summer, but it comes with a price: Rising rates of skin cancer have created a major public health problem – one that is almost entirely preventable -- according to a new “call to action” issued Tuesday by the U.S. Surgeon General.
Nearly 5 million people are treated in the U.S. for skin cancer every year -- at a cost of about $8.1 billion, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. That includes some 63,000 people newly diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which kills about 9,000 a year. In the past 30 years, more people have had skin cancer than all other types of cancer combined, health officials said.
But many in the U.S. fail to take skin cancer seriously, neglecting sun protection or actively seeking bronzed skin on the beach or in tanning beds, health officials said.
“Tanned skin is damaged skin,” said Dr. Boris D. Lushniak, acting U.S. surgeon general, in a statement. “When people tan or get sunburned, they increase their risk of getting skin cancer later in life.”
People with lighter skin are at higher risk for the disease, but anyone can get skin cancer, the new report emphasizes. And it urges common steps such as seeking shelter from the sun, wearing protective gear like hats and sunglasses and using sunscreen with a sun protection factor – or SPF – of at least 15.
“It’s not enough to just slather ourselves with sunscreen,” said Dr. Margaret M. Madeleine, an assistant member in the Division of Public Health Sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “Get under a tree and seek shade, particularly during the highest intensity parts of the day.”
Madeleine applauded Lushniak and other top officials for highlighting the public health danger posed by skin cancer. “It’s a very unrecognized problem,” she said.
The new report is only the latest to emphasize the risk of intentionally seeking tanned skin. Teen girls and young women who get more than five blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 had an 80 percent higher risk of skin cancer, including melanoma, according to a May study in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
That was the same month that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued black box warning for tanning beds saying they shouldn’t be used by anyone younger than 18 because of the risk of skin cancer.
Also this spring, University of Minnesota researchers showed that there’s no such thing as a safe “base” tan, even without having been sunburned. Melanoma patients who’d never burned were nearly four times as likely to be indoor tanners than people without the deadly skin cancers, the study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found.
The culprit, as most people know, is ultraviolet radiation, or UV rays, which stimulate the skin to produce melanin, the substance that shows up as a tan, or, worse, a sunburn. But that golden glow or reddened hue actually indicates that the skin, skin cells and the DNA in the cells have been damaged. That damage is what leads to cancer, experts say.
Even though most adults know about sun dangers, one out of every three has been sunburned in the past year, the new report says, and most skip recommended steps to protect themselves. In addition, indoor tanning rates are high, particularly among young girls. More than a third of white women ages 16 to 25 regularly uses indoor tanning, according to health statistics.
Many states are taking the problem seriously, with as many as 44 plus the District of Columbia passing laws or regulations to restrict indoor tanning. But melanoma is most commonly diagnosed in people in their 40s and 50s, experts say.
Tanning beds are only part of the problem, said Dr. Emily White, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Cancer Prevention Program. The main cause of skin cancer is outdoor sun exposure – and the damage can start early.
That means parents need to take steps to protect youngsters against sun damage -- and keep it up for their kids and themselves. Daily sunscreen use and avoiding sun exposure are key, she said.
“It is very important for parents to take these precautions for their children from the time they are born because the mostly deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, is likely triggered by sun exposure in the first 20 years of life.”
JoNel Aleccia is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. From 2008 to 2014, she was a national health reporter for NBC News and msnbc.com and a reporter, editor and columnist for more than two decades at newspapers in the Northwest. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.