SUNDAY, April 1, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- New research highlights a dramatic increase in the rates of melanoma, a potentially fatal form of skin cancer, among young adults, with young women being hit the hardest.
According to the study, the incidence of melanoma increased eightfold among young women and fourfold among young men from 1970 through 2009.
The findings come from a population-based study by Mayo Clinic researchers using records from the Rochester Epidemiology Project, a decades-long database of all patient care in Olmsted County, Minn. The researchers looked for first-time diagnoses of melanoma in patients 18 to 39 from 1970 to 2009.
Dermatologists said these findings mirror what they are seeing in their own practices.
And the study researchers pointed to the rise in the use of indoor tanning beds as one of the main reasons behind the trend, but childhood sunburns and ultraviolet (UV) exposure in adulthood may also contribute to melanoma risk. The findings appear in the April issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
Although the rates of melanoma have increased, the study did show that fewer people are dying from skin cancer. Researchers credit early detection of skin cancer and prompt medical care for the improved survival rates.
"People are now more aware of their skin and of the need to see a doctor when they see changes," Mayo Clinic dermatologist Dr. Jerry Brewer said in a statement. "As a result, many cases may be caught before the cancer advances to a deep melanoma, which is harder to treat."
Dr. Jennifer Stein, an assistant professor at the Ronald O. Perelman department of dermatology at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said that she is seeing a lot of young people, especially young women, with melanoma.
"Skin cancer awareness is up, and even though there is lots of information about the dangers of tanning beds, people still use them," Stein said.
Other risks for melanoma include a family or personal history of melanoma and large numbers of unusual looking moles. "People who have had a melanoma are at higher risk for having another," she said. "It is important to check your own skin at home and come in to see a skin doctor if you ever see anything you are worried about it."
How can you tell? Look for moles that follow the ABCD rule, said Dr. Alicia Terando, a surgical oncologist at Ohio State University's James Cancer Hospital in Columbus. "'A' stands for asymmetry, meaning that one half of the mole is a different size than the other. 'B' is for border irregularity. 'C' stands for color. Melanomas are often brown, tan and black. The 'D' is for diameter. Most melanomas are greater than 6 millimeters in size. "A melanoma is the mole that stands out," she said. "It's the ugly duckling."
"Prevention is also important," Stein said. "Take precautions when in the sun, including wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sun-protective clothing and applying and reapplying sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays."
Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, director of Mohs and Dermatological Surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, is concerned about the rising rates of skin cancer in young women.
"People know they should wear sunscreen and should not get burned, but there is a disconnect between that and tanning bed use," Mariwalla said. Tans are also being glamorized on reality shows like "Jersey Shore," she added.
As it stands, 36 states restrict indoor tanning use by minors. California became the first state to prohibit the use of indoor tanning devices for everyone under the age of 18, and many other states are considering such bans, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
John Overstreet, executive director of the Indoor Tanning Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., said that indoor tanning bed use shouldn't be singled out as a cause for the rise in skin cancer rates.
"The study itself has almost nothing to do with indoor tanning and the links they cite to indoor tanning are nothing but speculation," he said. "They attempt to make indoor tanning the story while ignoring other possible risk factors such as sunburning outdoors, sunscreens that for several decades did not block UVA, the more deeply penetrating ultraviolet wavelength, and more frequent travel to sunny vacations locations over the last decade where severe sunburns are more likely to occur."
Learn more about melanoma at the U.S. National Cancer Institute.