Surgeon general makes skin cancer a national priority

July 30, 2014 | by

Skin cancer rates have been on the rise for years. On Tuesday, the U.S. surgeon general said: Enough.

Indoor tanning bed

The U.S. surgeon general has issued the first-ever Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer. Indoor tanning is especially under fire, in the report and from a City of Hope skin cancer expert.

In issuing the first-ever Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer, acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak described skin cancer as a "major public health problem" that requires action by all segments of society.

Nearly 5 million people in the United States are treated for skin cancer each year, the report said, making it the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, with annual treatment costs reaching an estimated $8.1 billion. It's also one of the most preventable cancers.

Everyone has a role to play in the skin cancer prevention effort, Lushniak stressed, saying that governments across the board (not just federal and state, but also tribal, local and territorial) need to be partners with business, health care and education leaders; community, nonprofit and faith-based organizations; and of course individuals and families.

He'll find little argument from skin cancer experts, including City of Hope dermatologist Jae Jung, M.D., Ph.D. She's seen the profound impact of skin cancer on society and the alarming rise in skin cancer rates among young people.

One risk factor stands out

Jung wants particular attention paid to the preventable risk of tanning beds.

“Exposure to tanning beds before the age of 35 increases your lifetime risk of melanoma by as much as 75 percent,” Jung said. “The rates of melanoma are increasing, especially in young people. Over 75 percent of melanomas in 18 to 29 year olds are associated with tanning. Ultraviolet light is a carcinogen and it causes skin cancer.”

Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, is expected to cause nearly 10,000 deaths this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. The surgeon general report cites a 200 percent increase in melanoma cases since 1973.

Even with continued efforts to address the dangers of indoor tanning, thousands of teens continue to expose themselves to the harmful radiation from tanning beds.

“I have personally seen women in their 20s with these cancers and nearly all of them have either indoor or outdoor tanning history,” said Jung. “Public education can help reduce the rising skin cancer rates by helping to change our behavior as a society."

Jung acknowledged, however, that the majority of skin cancers come from chronic sun exposure and can be prevented by using good sun protective measures such as:

  • Staying in the shade.
  • Avoiding outdoor activities between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when UV radiation is highest.
  • Wearing sun-protective clothing and using sunscreen. (Learn how to choose sunscreen wisely.)

She also advises that people see a physician right away if they notice a skin condition that's out of the ordinary. “Most skin cancers are 100 percent curable when treated early, even melanoma,” Jung said.

Next steps

In the report, the surgeon general listed five strategic goals to help reduce skin cancer incidence, including one dedicated to reducing the harm associated with indoor tanning.

Goal 1: Increase opportunities for sun protection in outdoor settings.

Goal 2: Provide individuals with the information they need to make informed,
 healthy choices about UV exposure.

Goal 3: Promote policies that advance the national goal of preventing skin cancer.

Goal 4: Reduce harms from indoor tanning.

Goal 5: Strengthen research, surveillance, monitoring and evaluation related to 
skin cancer prevention.

“We know there are many strategies that work to protect us from ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, and we need to use them,” Lushniak said in the report.

Accompanying the report is a consumer booklet that includes skin cancer facts, sun protection tips and, particularly interesting, myths about tanning. Myth one: "A 'base tan' will protect me from a sunburn." Fact: "A 'base tan' is not a safe tan. A tan means you have damaged your skin."

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Learn more about skin cancer treatment and research at City of Hope.

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Also, check out Sunscreen 411: Tips on protecting your skin from the sun