New Jersey residents get melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, at a rate higher than the national average.
But melanoma and other skin cancers are largely preventable. Health officials want to make sure people know that skin cancer is the most common cancer and that people can guard against it by wearing sunscreen and protective clothing and avoiding long-term exposure to the strong midday sun.
That’s especially important information on Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer at the Jersey Shore, where millions of people will enjoy sun, sand and surf through Labor Day.
“A majority of melanoma is caused by episodic sun burning,” said Dr. James Goydos, director of the Melanoma and Soft Tissue Oncology Program at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey. He said it typically appears in people in their 40s or 50s, years or even decades after sun damage has occurred.
Goydos said melanoma rates rose significantly during the 1980s and early 1990s, at least in part because people who had spent significant amounts of time in the sun before the availability of today’s powerful sunscreens began to get the cancer.
Annual increases in melanoma rates have stabilized at around 5 percent.
“We hope there will be a big drop now due to the very effective sun blocks that are available,” Goydos said.
New Jersey’s average annual rate of invasive melanoma (meaning it has spread to other tissues) is 21.4 per 100,000 people, adjusted for age. That’s compared with a national rate of 19.2, according to data from the National Cancer Institute. That rate is significantly higher in some counties – 43.2 per 100,000 in Cape May and 38.2 in Hunterdon – and much lower in others – 9.1 in Hudson and 12.5 in Essex. All four Shore counties have rates higher than the state average.
But it’s hard to blame geographic location. New Jersey’s incidence rate is well below that of states like Vermont and Idaho that are further north and without beaches. And Southern states like Florida and Texas have lower incidence rates or melanoma.
Shore counties also have age-adjusted death rates from melanoma that are higher than the state and national averages – both at 2.7 deaths per 100,000 over the course of a year – but the highest rates are in counties without beachfronts: 4.7 in Warren and 4.4 in Gloucester. The NCI data puts the average annual increase in the cancer death rate in New Jersey at .4 percent.
From 2005 through 2009, 257 New Jerseyans died each year on average due to melanoma.
While melanoma is dangerous, the good news is that it is usually easy to spot, given that it grows on the skin. When it is caught early, there is a 90 percent cure rate, Goydos said.
While there can be some family predisposition toward skin cancer, more often it is a person’s skin type and sensitivity to the sun and burning that makes it more likely a person might contract melanoma. Another major factor, said Goydos, is “the kind of sun exposure you got as a child.”
But officials also believe that the increase in melanoma has been due in part to the erosion of the ozone layer, which is letting in more harmful ultraviolet rays.
“While we’re making progress toward restoring the Earth’s ozone layer, Americans need to take steps now for extra protection from harmful UV rays and skin cancer,” said Janet McCabe, deputy assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation. “Americans can stay safe under the sun and enjoy the outdoors by taking simple steps such as using sunscreen and wearing UV-blocking sunglasses.”
The EPA joined this year with the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in naming today “Don’t Fry Day” to encourage people to take steps to avoid getting skin cancer:
“If current trends continue, one in five Americans will get skin cancer in their lifetime, and many of these skin cancers could be prevented by reducing UV exposure from the sun and indoor tanning devices,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
Goydos said that people should not avoid the sun completely, as sun exposure is good for people, but they need to be careful and take proper precautions.
“It’s like wine, a glass of red wine is good for us, but a bottle isn’t,” he said. “A little bit of sun is good for us, but don’t overdo it.”