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Skin Cancers Increasing in Young Adults

Experts Say Sunbathing, Tanning Beds May Explain Rise
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WebMD Health News

Aug. 9, 2005 -- Nonmelanoma skin cancers appear to be on the rise among young adults in the U.S., with the biggest increases being seen in women, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic reported a more than doubling of the incidence of squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas among women under the age of 40 since the mid- to late-1970s, while only a slight increase has been seen among men. The study will appear Wednesday in Journal of the American Medical Association.

The new study did not address the reason for the rise, but experts tell WebMD that they suspect the popularity of tanning beds among young women may be at least partly to blame.

"Generally, about 80% to 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers occur around the head and neck, but in the population that we studied there was a higher percentage of tumors occurring on the torso, especially among young women," dermatologic surgeon and researcher of the study Leslie J. Christenson, MD, tells WebMD. "This suggests intentional tanning, either through tanning beds or lying out in the sun."

Skin Cancer Most Common After 50

More than a million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year, and roughly 97% of these are the nonmelanoma cancers. Basal cell carcinoma is by far the most common type of skin cancer, followed by squamous cell carcinoma.

Nonmelanoma skin cancers are highly treatable if the skin lesion is identified and removed early. They are most commonly seen in people over the age of 50, but Christenson says her experience led her to suspect that the cancers were on the rise in younger people.

"As a dermatologic surgeon, I was operating on more and more younger women," she says. "That is what led us to do the study."

The Mayo researchers found that between the late 1970s and 2003, the incidence of basal cell carcinoma skin tumors doubled among people younger than age 40, with the rise in cases among women accounting for most of the increase.

The rate for basal cell carcinomas per 100,000 people in the mid- to late-1970s was 13.4 cases among women and 23 cases among men. Between 2000 and 2003, the rate was 31 cases for women and 26 cases for men.

Christenson says the increased rates in these tumors among young people points to an overall rise in skin cancers in the near future.

"50% of people who have one (nonmelanoma skin lesion) will have a second one within two to three years, and 75% of people who have two will have a third," she says.

American Cancer Society skin cancer spokesman Martin A Weinstock, MD, PhD, says the fact that the rise was so much more apparent in women than in men seems to implicate intentional tanning, and especially tanning bed use.

It is clear that women use tanning beds much more often than men do. A recent study showed that girls in their late teens were almost seven times as likely as boys to report tanning with the aid of a tanning bed.

"We can't tell from this report that this is the cause, but it is certainly something that needs further study," Weinstock tells WebMD.

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