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Surgeon General Issues ‘Call to Action’ to Prevent Skin Cancer

Skin cancer rates rising; most cases are preventable

Skin cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., is a major public health problem that requires immediate attention, according to a new “call to action” released by the U.S. Surgeon General.

Although most skin cancers can be prevented, the rates of the disease, including melanoma, are increasing in the U.S. Nearly 5 million people in this country are treated for skin cancer every year, at an average annual cost of $8.1 billion. It is also one of the most common types of cancer among U.S. teens and young adults.

A key message in the new report is that, although people with lighter skin are at higher risk, anyone can get skin cancer, which can be disfiguring and even deadly. Over the last 3 decades, the number of Americans who have had skin cancer is estimated to be higher than the number for all other cancers combined.

“While many other cancers, such as lung cancer, are decreasing, rates of melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — are increasing,” said Assistant Secretary for Health Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH. “As a skin oncologist who worked in this field for many years, I have cared for both the young and old with skin cancers. Almost all of these cancers were caused by unnecessary ultraviolet radiation exposure, usually from excessive time in the sun or from the use of indoor tanning devices.”

Each year, more than 63,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed in the U.S. and, nearly 9,000 people die from the disease. The rates of melanoma increased more than 200% from 1973 to 2011.

According to research cited in the “call to action,” more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer — about 6,000 of which are melanomas — are estimated to be related to indoor tanning in the U.S. each year. As many as 44 states plus the District of Columbia have some type of law or regulation related to indoor tanning, but nearly one out of every three white women aged 16 to 25 engages in indoor tanning each year.

“Tanned skin is damaged skin, and we need to shatter the myth that tanned skin is a sign of health,” said Acting Surgeon General Boris D. Lushniak, MD, MPH. “When people tan or get sunburned, they increase their risk of getting skin cancer later in life.”

The report calls on all sectors of Americans society — including the health care, business, education, government, and nonprofit sectors, as well as families and individuals — to do more. Examples include health care providers counseling patients on the importance of using sun protection; communities providing shade in outdoor settings; and educational institutions discouraging indoor tanning.

Sources: HHS; July 29, 2014; and Surgeon General; July 29, 2014.

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