The month of May marked two important highlights for skin cancer. First, May is National Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Among several efforts to raise awareness of the importance of prevention, early detection, and treatment of skin cancer was a free skin screening clinic by the dermatology residents at Fletcher Allen. Second, May marked the month that Vermont legislators took a significant step towards protecting our youth from a significant health hazard: indoor tanning. New legislation passed prohibits children under 18 years old from using indoor tanning devices. This may not seem like a big deal, but those of us who diagnose and treat patients with skin cancer believe it is a very important measure and are happy to see the attention this has brought to skin cancer awareness in our state.
Vermont has one of the highest rates of melanoma, which is a particularly aggressive and potentially fatal form of skin cancer, in the United States. Researchers have identified excessive ultraviolet (UV) light exposure as an important risk factor for developing melanoma. This includes long-term exposure to sunlight, frequent sunburns, and use of tanning beds.
Protecting the skin from damaging UV light is one of the few risk factors that one actually can control. Unfortunately, many people still underestimate the risk of UV light exposure, especially when it comes to tanning beds. In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified the cancer risk of UV-emitting indoor tanning devices as Group I – “carcinogenic to humans”. Indoor tanning before the age of 30 increases a person’s risk of melanoma by at least 70%. Tanning is never safe; it damages the skin, causing early wrinkling and it increases an individual’s risk of all types of skin cancer.
What makes melanoma particularly tragic is that it affects Vermonters of all ages, and melanoma rates among young persons are rising significantly. Melanoma is now the most common cancer among young women aged 25-29 and is the second most common cancer among those aged 15-29 years. Focusing on wellness and preventing disease before it occurs will save lives. No tan is worth dying for. We have an opportunity to help ensure the safety of our children. Melanoma is a potentially preventable cancer and keeping our children out of indoor tanning beds is a powerful step in the right direction.
More on Melanoma Risk Factors
Skin damage from UV radiation is a recognized risk factor for skin cancer. Some other known risk factors are fair skin, blonde or red hair, significant freckling, and a family history of skin cancer.
Depending on the number of risk factors present, your personal risk of melanoma may be as high as ten times the normal risk. However, it is important to know that risk factors only estimate your chance of getting skin cancer. Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get melanoma. Conversely, many people who get skin cancer may not have any known risk factors. Nonetheless, if you do have any of these risk factors it is important to perform regular self-skin checks, see a dermatologist for full skin exams, and avoid unnecessary sun exposure. Melanoma, although potentially fatal, can be cured if it is detected early.
Ted A. James, M.D., FACS is a surgical oncologist at Fletcher Allen and an associate professor of surgery at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.
Kathryn Schwarzenberger, M.D. is a dermatologist at Fletcher Allen and the Dermatology Residency Program Director. She is also a professor of medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine