Melanoma to strike 1 in 84 Americans Deadly disease's rate of increase is now fastest of all cancers

March 26, 1997|By BOSTON GLOBE

The incidence of malignant melanoma has soared to 18 times its level in 1930, meaning that 1 in 84 Americans will develop the virulent skin cancer over their lifetime, according to a study made public yesterday.

That's the fastest rate of increase of any cancer, and translates into one American dying every hour from melanoma.

"Everybody sensed the risk was rising rapidly, but seeing the numbers is a little frightening," said Dr. Darrell S. Rigel, associate professor of dermatology at New York University Medical School, who presented his findings at the American Academy of Dermatology annual meeting in San Francisco.

"Melanoma is probably the most clear-cut case of preventable cancer," Rigel added in a telephone interview. "The problem is, can we get people to change their behavior?"

Doctors have been warning for years about the rising rate of melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer.

But Rigel's report, based on data from hospital tumor registries nationwide, offers the most comprehensive analysis of just how fast that rise is.

In 1930, the risk of developing melanoma for Americans was just 1 in 1,500. That rose to 1 in 250 by 1980. If current rates continue, Rigel said, by the year 2000 the lifetime risk will be 1 in 75.

Melanoma already is the most common cancer in American women ages 25 to 29, and the second most common in women 30 to 34, behind breast cancer.

It is the fifth most common overall in the United States -- behind lung, breast, colon, and prostate cancers. That's a huge increase from 1980, when it was the 20th most common nationwide.

Some scientists suggest the apparent rise is overblown, resulting from physicians being better at recognizing melanomas that in the past went undiagnosed.

But Rigel says the incidence of melanoma probably is underestimated because diagnosis and treatment increasingly is done in outpatient settings, while incidence data is collected only in hospitals.

"Melanoma is the only major cancer where at some point the person having it may not hit a hospital," said Rigel, who has served as chairman of the Presidential Commission on Melanoma and Skin Cancer.

Depletion of the ozone layer of the Earth's atmosphere, which lets in more cancer-causing ultraviolet light, is one reason researchers give for rising rates of melanoma.

Another is that Americans have been spending more time in the sun, and going out with less protective covering.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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