Summer is right around the corner, which means renewed concerns about skin cancer and sun exposure. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in both men and women in the United States, and you may be surprised by what states come with the highest risk of the disease.
Although many people consider summer the season of the suntan, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest people who live in states not known for abundant sunshine are actually at higher risk for developing skin cancer. Utah, Delaware, Vermont, Minnesota and Idaho have the highest skin cancer rates of all U.S. states, and their residents are at higher risk for melanoma than those in Florida, California or Texas, according to the CDC.
“Many of the high-risk states have intermittent sun exposure,” says Dr. Charles Komen Brown, Medical Director of Surgery & Surgical Oncologist at our hospital near Chicago. “People who are not used to regular sun exposure are at risk for getting sunburned when they experience sunny days. Any sunburn predisposes them to getting any kind of skin cancer, including melanoma.”
Other risk factors for skin cancer include:
- Too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (from sunlight or tanning beds)
- Family history
- Weakened immune system
- Older age (although melanomas are also found in younger people)
- Multiple or unusual moles
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal-cell carcinoma, squamous-cell carcinoma and melanoma. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 5 million basal- and squamous-cell skin cancers are diagnosed each year. An estimated 76,380 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in 2016. While basal-cell carcinoma is considered the most common type of skin cancer, most national cancer statistics only mention melanoma because basal- and squamous-cell carcinomas are not typically tracked by central cancer registries.
People with lighter skin are more susceptible to sunburns, and to the cancer those burns often cause. In fact, melanoma is 20 times more common in whites than in blacks, according to the ACS. But anyone can get the disease. “Melanoma in African Americans is very rare in sun-exposed areas,” says Dr. Brown. “African Americans and Asians are more prone to get melanoma in non-sun-exposed areas, including under the fingernails, toenails, even on the eyeball. If left untreated, it may spread to the lymph nodes, blood vessels and other organs.”
One way to prevent skin cancer is to avoid exposure to sunlight. “I think prevention is the most important treatment,” Dr. Brown adds. But for the many people who cannot avoid the sun completely, he recommends keeping as much skin covered as possible, whether with hats and long sleeve shirts, high SPF sunscreen or even zinc oxide sunblock on at-risk areas.
If you are at risk for skin cancer, see your doctor for regular check-ups and monitor your skin for abnormal growths. Knowing the ABCs of skin cancer may help, so look at moles or blemishes for these signs:
- Asymmetry: Half of the mole is different than the other half.
- Border: Edges are notched, uneven or blurred.
- Color: The mole is uneven in color, or has shades of brown, tan and black.
- Diameter: The width is greater than 6 mm, or the size of a pencil eraser.
- Elevation and evolution: The mole is raised or changes appearance over time.
Catching skin cancer early may help expand your treatment options. “It often allows for a small problem to be easily taken care of, in the case of basal-cell and squamous-cell skin cancers,” says Dr. Brown. “In melanoma, it may allow for treatment before the cancer progresses to an advanced stage, which then carries with it a very high risk of metastasis.”
Learn more about skin cancer prevention and treatment options.