A call to action against skin cancer

With skin cancer rates climbing — and most of those cancers preventable — the nation’s surgeon general issued a call for action this week to attack the problem.

“In a world of epidemics, outbreaks, and growing rates of cancer and other chronic diseases, we can sometimes feel that good health eludes us,” Dr. Boris Lushniak, the acting U.S. surgeon general, said in the report. “With this Call to Action, we are promoting straightforward steps that will incorporate skin cancer prevention into our everyday lives. The potential exists for a large return on our investment; the cost both in illness and death and in dollars is great.”

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer nationwide. Nearly 5 million Americans each year are diagnosed, at an average annual cost of some $8.1 billion. Cases of melanoma, the most deadly form, have risen by more than 200 percent since 1973.

The solution? Families and communities should work to limit exposure to harmful UV rays from the sun and from tanning beds, the surgeon general said.

“Melanoma continues to be a significant cause and death in young people in this country, and dermatologists now routinely see young patients with skin cancers we once associated with our older patients,” said Dr. Jeffrey Meffert, associate professor of dermatology at the UT Health Science Center, who practices at University Health System.

“Recreational sun exposure and early, frequent use of tanning salons are common factors in these young, sun-damaged victims,” Dr. Meffert added. “It has been a priority of both state and national dermatological associations to bring more regulation to the multi-billion dollar tanning industry, and we are slowly making inroads here.”

The report calls for more sources of outdoor shade in recreation and education settings, and to protect outdoor workers; more education and policies to discourage indoor tanning, especially in young people; more research; and other steps.

Much of the report focuses on protecting children and young people, since sunburns in childhood are linked to skin cancers later in life. It points to a handful of states that have laws requiring that schools allow students to use sunscreen or sun-protective clothing on campus. Some Texas school districts ban sunscreen as a potentially toxic substance.

Dr. Meffert said prevention on a large scale is possible, and cited Australia as an example. That country “has recently stabilized and in some cases started to reduce their skin cancer rates, including melanoma. This requires intensive education and full participation of physicians and patients alike.”

Dr. Meffert praised the report and Dr. Lushniak, who he has collaborated with on a number of projects through the American Academy of Dermatology. “Any issue that the surgeon general highlights as an area of interest and concern is more likely to get the attention it needs and deserves,” Dr. Meffert said.

Photo by National Cancer Institute