Medical Review By: Alissa O’Brien, MD
Whether you’re in your 30s, 20s or teens, chances are you think of skin cancer as a vague and distant threat, if you think of it at all. But the statistics may surprise you.
It’s true that melanoma, which can be fatal, is most often seen in older adults. The average age at diagnosis is 63. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen earlier in life — it can, and more and more often, it does. In fact, melanoma is the most diagnosed age-related cancer among people ages 25 to 29. In people ages 15 to 29, it’s the third most common age-related cancer for males and fourth most common for females.
Young women get melanoma more often than young men. Before age 50, women are more likely to develop melanoma than any other cancer except breast and thyroid cancer.
But men should wake up and smell the sunscreen, too. Cases of melanoma on the head and neck increased by 51% among children, teens and young adults in the U.S. and Canada between 1995 and 2014 according to a 2019 study; and in the U.S., most of the increase was driven by melanoma in white males.
A deadlier threat in men
Melanoma is deadlier in men, including young men, than women. One study found that while teen and young adult males were less likely than females of the same age to develop melanoma, they were 55% more likely to die of it, regardless of tumor thickness.
Experts don’t understand all the reasons men face worse melanoma survival rates than women, but they do know that men’s skin and women’s skin are structurally different. Women are also more likely to wear sunscreen — and are less hesitant to see a doctor when they suspect something’s wrong.
An ounce (or two) of prevention
Sun protection is the key to preventing most cases of melanoma. That means staying out of the sun when its rays are strongest and protecting yourself from head to toe with clothing, hats and broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF 30 or more). Don’t skimp on the sunscreen, either. Imagine filling a shot glass, which holds 1.5 ounces, with sunscreen. That’s about how much you need to cover your face and body.
Guys: If you are bald or balding and choose not to wear a hat, put sunscreen on your head. Men are more prone to skin cancer on the scalp (and ears) than women. A gel or spray sunscreen works well on hairy areas. If you wear a hat, you still need to apply sunscreen to your face, ears and neck.
If you go shirtless, apply sunscreen all over, including under your arms. But even if you keep your shirt on, it’s smart to apply sunscreen underneath. If you can see light through your shirt when you hold it up to the sun, UV rays can get to your skin through it.
No such thing as a healthy tan
In 2019, Blue Cross Blue Shield published results of a survey showing that among millennials:
- 58% think a tan makes you more attractive
- 53% believe a tan makes you look healthy
- 31% use tanning beds to get a base tan
Attractiveness is objective, so you should ask yourself if you’d rather have a tan or skin cancer. As far as “base tans” go, there’s no such thing. And tanning bed use before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma by 75%.
Male or female, light skinned or dark, melanoma prevention should be on everyone’s radar, especially those of us living in Florida. In addition to protecting yourself from UV rays, it’s also important to heed the warning signs of melanoma. The reason is simple: Early diagnosis and treatment just may save your life.
Article written by: Ann Pietrangelo, an author and freelance writer specializing in health and wellness.