More than 108,000 new cases of melanoma-the most dangerous form of skin cancer- will be diagnosed in the United States in 2007, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Diagnoses of melanoma increased by more than 1% per year in the United States between 1995 and 2004, in contrast to a decline in overall cancer rates during the same period.
“While the increase in melanoma rates from 1995 to 2004 was not specific to one age group, we did notice an increase in the youngest age group (from ages 15 to 30) and in the age 60 and older group,” says Martin A. Weinsock, a professor of dermatology and community health at Brown University. “The possible reasons for this increase in younger and older Americans are not documented, but one possible explanation could be more exposure to UV radiation.”
The fact that more people are being diagnosed with melanoma could have a silver lining, as it may indicate that more people are undergoing melanoma screening. Doctors are thus able to catch the cancer in its earliest stages, when it’s the most treatable, according to Israel Eckman, a dermatology specialist affiliated with Johns Hopkins University.
“There is a correlation between more people coming in for screening and thereby a net increase in diagnosis of melanoma,” says Eckman. “There’s a subject bias here as well, because you’re getting more patients who you’re able to actually diagnose. On the positive side of that, most of the melanomas we’re detecting have a more favorable prognosis. A lot of these are not thick melanomas. They tend to be thin melanomas, and most of the melanomas I diagnose tend to be in situ, which is a superficial melanoma.”
Recent statistics may validate that observation. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (May 2007) in which men and women were given free melanoma screenings, women were more likely to request a screening than men and accounted for nearly 62% of the screenings administered. Yet they accounted for only 54% of the total suspected melanomas identified. Men over the age of 50 accounted for 31% of the total number of suspected melanomas identified, yet were only 23% of the screening population, indicating that one of the groups most at-risk for melanoma, men over 50, is also one of the least likely to get screened for the disease.
Overexposure to the sun’s rays, one of the chief risk factors for melanoma, can be avoided by using protective clothing and sunblock, but numerous other risk factors exist, such as having a history of cancer, being over the age of 50, not seeing a dermatologist regularly, and possessing a mole that has changed in size or appearance in any way.
According to Eckman, having an immediate blood relation diagnosed with the disease should also serve as a warning to schedule a screening with a dermatologist. -Patrick Tucker
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2007.