A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that melanoma rates in the United States have doubled over the past 30 years.
The Arizona Republic reports that the CDC is concerned that melanoma, a particularly fatal form of skin cancer caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, will continue to rise among the American population if Americans aren’t more careful about sun exposure.
More than 90% of melanomas are caused by UV radiation exposure. Dr. Robin Harris, a professor of epidemiology and co-director of the University of Arizona Cancer Skin Cancer Institute in Tucson, says apathy, denial, and even arrogance are just as accountable for the spike in melanoma cases as UV radiation itself.
“There’s still a belief that ‘it’s not going to happen to me and this is something I don’t have to worry about,'” Harris said.
The CDC report saw a dramatic rise in melanoma diagnoses since the 1980s. In 1982, the national rate of melanoma was 11.2 per 100,000 people. In 2011, the rate increased to 22.7 per 100,000 people. Unless Americans work on prevention, the CDC predicts that more than 112,000 new cases will be reported by 2030.
In Arizona, known for its sweltering southwestern heat, arid climate, and intense UV radiation, researchers and officials worry that melanoma might actually be worse than currently thought considering many cases go unreported — a trend other states may have as well.
In fact, Harris and other experts on skin cancer have been suspicious of CDC statistics for years, claiming they were inconsistent with local figures as well as the reality on the ground (i.e. Arizona is particularly sunny). In 2003, for example, the CDC stated the state’s melanoma rate was 3.6% higher than the national average. However, the rate continued to go down, according to the CDC, dipping below the national average in 2010 by 4.2%.
“We had heard from individual dermatologists in the state that they had been seeing more melanoma cases than they had in the past,” Harris said.
In order to verify the CDC’s findings for Arizona, the Arizona Melanoma Task Force was created in 2011 to research the discrepancies. The group, composed of doctors, researchers, and public health officials, found that medical providers in the state underreported cases. Arizona law requires any physician who diagnoses a patient with melanoma to report it to the state Department of Health Services.
However, due to confusion about who exactly was responsible for reporting it (for example, whether it was the job of the general physician who performed the initial biopsy or the pathologist who analysed the biopsy report), many cases went unreported. In fact, some doctors were under the impression they weren’t responsible for reporting it at all under law.
“The thought was that it was just voluntary,” said Dr. John Ebner of the Arizona Dermatology in the Valley.
Skin cancer is a grave concern for many Americans. Some estimates hold that up to 20% of Americans will develop some kind of skin cancer within their lifetimes.