Melanoma: Now Also a Disease of Young People

Once perceived as a disease primarily affecting middle-aged and older adults, melanoma is rising meteorically in the young.  A recent study of young people from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) in Buffalo, NY, found that melanoma incidence in children, adolescents and young adults has shot up by more than 250 percent since 1973, with the steepest climb in those between ages 15 and 39.

“In our clinical practice, we had been seeing a lot of younger folks in their 20’s and 30’s with melanoma, and we wanted to bring about awareness of this issue,” said Nikhil Khushalani, MD, senior author of the study and section chief for soft tissue and melanoma at Roswell.

Females had the highest melanoma rates; from 2001 to 2011, in fact, they received more than 65 percent of all the melanoma diagnoses among the children and young people studied. Many experts link this trend to their far greater use of tanning beds. “We know the use of tanning beds plays a big role, but we also need to look at other risk factors such as familial melanoma,” said Dr. Khushalani.

Melanoma most common

Targeting messages to the young
Given the spike in melanomas among those under age 40, the researchers stressed the need to better target prevention and early detection messages to this age group.  “The reality is that melanoma is the third most common cancer in those 15 to 39 years old,” explained Dr. Khushalani. “This is a national problem that needs to be addressed.” 

The good news: increased survival
On a hopeful note, the study also noted that melanoma survival rates are increasing, partly because of better treatments, and partly because the disease is being discovered at earlier stages. From 1973 to 1980 the melanoma survival rate was 80 percent; in 2011 it was up to 95 percent. The number of noninvasive, early-stage melanoma cases diagnosed increased from four percent of cases between 1973 and 1980 to more than 20 percent of cases in 2011. “Early detection is becoming better, and more biopsies are being performed at earlier stages,” said Dr. Khushalani. Parents and caregivers need to be better informed about tracking suspicious moles in children and adolescents, he added.

Published on September 9, 2015