Californians, step away from the beach and grab a hat and sunscreen. Our team of researchers from the Cancer Prevention Institute of California/Stanford Cancer Institute released a new report (.pdf) this week documenting the rapidly growing burden of melanoma in Marin County, California. This small, homogenous (and wealthy) county just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco has been the focus of cancer studies before, as high rates of breast cancer were first reported there in the late 1990's (rates declined there as in the rest of the country in 2003 when women stopped taking hormone therapy).
Our most recent cancer registry data show that rates of malignant melanomas in Marin County are 43 percent higher than the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area and 60 percent higher than other parts of California among non-Hispanic whites, who because of their fairer skin tones are diagnosed with melanoma at 20-30 times the rate of other ethnic groups. Also of concern is that the death rate due to melanoma is 18 percent higher in Marin whites than whites in other regions, a significant difference not seen before. Most of the elevated rates are limited to persons over age 65, especially men.
The Bay Area news media reported our findings as front-page news. Most coverage centered on the question of why the rates are so much higher in Marin County. Our best guess is that the higher average socioeconomic status of its residents corresponds to a higher proportion of people with the known risk factors for melanoma: fair complexion (pale skin, blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes) and a history of "intense intermittent" sun exposure over their lifetimes (exposure in big doses like you might get on a beach vacation in the winter).
However, it is also likely that better access to health care and skin screening has resulted in earlier diagnosis, a notion confirmed by the higher proportion of melanomas in Marin County caught when thin and more curable. Local dermatologists reacted to the statistics with some surprise, but didn't change their standing advice regarding skin cancer prevention: talk to your doctor about skin screening and stay sun safe by wearing hats, long-sleeves and broad-spectrum sunscreen during outdoor activities.
One statistic mostly overlooked by the media was our finding that melanoma is now the second most common cancer diagnosed in men living in Marin County, as rates have surpassed those for lung cancer. This pattern is very different than that observed for whites in the US and world, for whom prostate or lung are first, and melanoma is ranked much lower. With one of the most successful public tobacco control efforts in the world, most populations in California have seen rapid declines in the incidence of smoking-related cancers of the lung and respiratory system.
Unfortunately, it seems for older white persons in Marin County (as well as parts of Utah and Hawaii, where smoking rates have also declined), melanoma and skin cancers represent a major--and relentlessly growing--cancer threat. Perhaps putting down the cigarettes was accompanied by more time at the pool or beach without adequate sun protection. Although California was the first state to ban tanning bed use by minors, we should look to Australia and other countries also battling rising skin cancer rates for innovative new policies and strategies for encouraging safe sun exposure in our at-risk communities.
Christina A. Clarke, PhD, is a Research Scientist and Scientific Communications Advisor for the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, and a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute.
Previously: Beat the heat - and protect your skin from the sun, Working to protect athletes from sun dangers, As summer heats up take steps to protect your skin, Stanford study: Young men more likely to succumb to melanoma and How ultraviolet radiation changes the protective functions of human skin
Photo by stefan klocek