The American Academy of Dermatology just had their summer meeting and one of the speakers, Dr. Darrell Rigel, grabbed my attention with some alarming comments.
We have known for a while that melanoma rates are rising. This trend is a real phenomenon, not just the result of better vigilance. The National Cancer Institute looked at melanoma in women in their late twenties, comparing data from 1994-1996 to data from 2004-2006. In just one decade, the incidence of melanoma in these young women skyrocketed 42 percent! For women ages 30 to 34, the number of cases jumped 32 percent. Dr. Rigel says that this increase is a direct result of indoor tanning, which became popular in the 1990s.
Here is what we know:
· Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a carcinogen. It mutates the DNA in skin cells and leads to cancer.
· Many cases of melanoma are caused by UV radiation, particularly exposure to high levels at a young age.
· Indoor tanning has become very popular, with more than 60,000 tanning salons in the United States. (Compare that to 11,000 Starbucks stores and 12,000 McDonald’s restaurants.)
· The majority of people going to tanning salons are Caucasian women in their teens and early 20’s.
· Melanoma caused by UV exposure doesn’t show up until several years after the damage was done.
This clearly suggests that the increased incidence in melanoma diagnoses is being driven by UV exposure. As Dr. Rigel states, “Twenty years ago, it was rare to see a woman in her 20s with melanoma, and we also did not see a lot among women in their 30s. Now, we commonly see cases in women in their 20s, and every one of them has a tanning history.”
It may seem out of place, but my thoughts returned to Dr. Rigel’s conclusions as I recently watched the 1973 film The Exorcist. I had never seen it and have long been curious about all the hype. It has actually held up rather well over the years, with one glaring exception. In one scene, the doctor walks out of a hospital room and immediately lights a cigarette – a jarring image in 2011. We can only hope that, in the near future, seeing a sign for a tanning salon or pictures of teenage girls sporting that well-baked look will be similarly out of place. Unfortunately, we will bury a lot of young women before that happens.