PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Study: Skin Cancer in Young Adults on the Rise


Researchers are finding a worrisome increase in skin cancer among younger adults. That's despite public health warnings about the danger of exposure to the sun. NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports on a study in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.


Researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, looked at incidents of the two cancers in a nearby county over a 27-year period comparing rates in the late '70s to rates in 2000, 2003. The two cancers were not melanoma. There were the more common and easily treated types of skin cancer known as basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. Dermatologic surgeon Leslie Christianson.

Dr. LESLIE CHRISTIANSON (Dermatologic Surgeon): The incidents of basal cell carcinoma in women has increased almost three times during that time frame. The incidents of basal cell has not increased in men.

NEIGHMOND: Although there weren't a large number of cases overall, the rates of squamous cell skin cancer also increased among both men and women during the same time period.

Dr. JAMES SPENCER (Dermatologist): It confirms what I've been observing.

NEIGHMOND: Dermatologist James Spencer practices in St. Petersburg, Florida. He represents the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dr. SPENCER: When I started my career, which was in 1992, skin cancer was something that we saw in older people, frankly, and it was very unusual to see someone in their 30s or 20s with skin cancer. Now I feel that it's routine. I had a young woman 21 years old with a large skin cancer near her eye. Ten years ago, that would have been extraordinary, and as I said, now we see it fairly often.

NEIGHMOND: And unlike melanoma, says Spencer, the cause of these cancers is clear.

Dr. SPENCER: Ultraviolet light, period, end of discussion.

NEIGHMOND: Even so, Spencer says, surveys of young people indicate a disregard for this knowledge. He points to recent research in pediatric journals.

Mr. SPENCER: Surveying thousands of young people and asking some real simple questions. Young people meaning teen-agers, `Do you wear sunscreen when you go out on a sunny day?' And the answer is only one-third of them do. Two-thirds do not. `Do you wear a hat? Do you wear sunglasses to protect your eyes?' `No.' The majority? No, they don't. `Do you go to indoor tanning salons?' By the time they're college age, about 50 percent have been.

NEIGHMOND: Studies show UV rays from indoor tanning salons are just as dangerous as exposure to the sun, and because the bulbs can be very high-intensity, Spencer says a lot of teens and young adults get the equivalent of many hours of sunlight in just 20 minutes. Mayo Clinic researchers say the findings of this study should motivate more people to take exposure to the sun seriously and as a result take precautions, things you've heard before: sunscreen, a hat and no tanning salons. Researcher Leslie Christianson says both types of skin cancer look like small bumps or scaly patches which are reddish or pink and bleed easily. While these skin cancers are rarely fatal, they're still serious, she says, and require invasive treatment.

Dr. CHRISTIANSON: And they are cancers that will continue to grow, and if you do not have it removed, it will just continue to grow and grow and destroy the skin that it's living in till you have this big open wound and this big sore.

NEIGHMOND: And once individuals get non-melanoma skin cancer, more than half get it again within a few years, and after two incidents, 75 percent of patients get it a third time. Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.