Mayo Clinic Study Finds Rise in Skin Cancer in Young Adults

Researchers looked for first-time diagnoses of melanoma in patients 18 to 39 from 1970 to 2009. The study found the incidence of melanoma increased eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men.

Even as the rates of some cancers are falling, Mayo Clinic is seeing a dramatic rise in skin cancer, especially among people under 40. According to a study by Mayo Clinic researchers published in the April issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the incidence of melanoma has escalated, and young women are the hardest hit.

"We anticipated we'd find rising rates, as other studies are suggesting, but we found an even higher incidence than the National Cancer Institute had reported using the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Result database, and, in particular, a dramatic rise in women in their 20s and 30s," said lead investigator Jerry Brewer, M.D., a Mayo Clinic dermatologist.

Researchers conducted a population-based study using records from the Rochester Epidemiology Project, a decades-long database of all patient care in Olmsted County, Minn. They looked for first-time diagnoses of melanoma in patients 18 to 39 from 1970 to 2009. The study found the incidence of melanoma increased eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men. The lifetime risk of melanoma is higher in males than females, but the opposite is true in young adults and adolescents, Brewer said.

Researchers also found mortality rates from the disease have improved over the years, likely due to early detection of skin cancer and prompt medical care.

"People are now more aware of their skin and of the need to see a doctor when they see changes," Brewer said. "As a result, many cases may be caught before the cancer advances to a deep melanoma, which is harder to treat."

The researchers speculate that the use of indoor tanning beds is a key culprit in the rising cancer rate in young women.

"A recent study reported that people who use indoor tanning beds frequently are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma, and we know young women are more likely to use them than young men," Brewer said. Despite abundant information about the dangers of tanning beds, young women continue to use them. "The results of this study emphasize the importance of active interventions to decrease risk factors for skin cancer and, in particular, to continue to alert young women that indoor tanning has carcinogenic effects that increase the risk of melanoma."

Childhood sunburns and ultraviolet exposure in adulthood may also contribute to melanoma development, the researchers said.

The study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.

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