NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. The American Cancer Society says new cases of melanoma,the rarest, but deadliest form doubled in the last ten years. Fox 8 takes a deeper looks at the alarming trend and the small things you can do to change it.
Skin cancer is easy to detect, but devastating if left untreated. Kaelyn Johnson said, “I found out about my melanoma when I was 19.”
Just starting college and fun with friends topped Kaelyn Johnson's thoughts, regular scans from a dermatologist were not on the list. She said, “It's scary because I mean when you are like in high school and even when you go into college no one is really telling you to go to the dermatologist.”
It was a high school friend that may have saved her life. Johnson said, “We were getting ready one day and she was just like, ‘Oh you have this mole.” On my back. ‘It's real dark and it's big.’”
Johnson had never been to the dermatologist and still didn't expect to hear she had cancer. “Like what. I have skin cancer. It's a strange thought,” Johnson said.
She stayed out of the sun and used sunscreen. “When I would go on spring break with my friends all my friends would have just oil and I'd be like who wants 100 SPF,” she said.
Johnson said, “Now looking back it's just so common for people my age to have it.”
Board certified dermatologist Rachael Delahoussaye-Shields said, “We are seeing an incidence increase in melanoma especially with young women over the past 20 30 years.”
While melanoma accounts for only 1% of all skin cancers one person in the United States dies every hour from the disease according to statistics from the latest American Cancer Society report.
Delahoussaye-Shields said, “We find that a lot of people use sunscreen when they anticipate sun exposure, but then they tend to not reapply, so they are still getting burned or getting sun damage. Then a lot of people don't anticipate the sun exposure and don't have anything handy. They don't apply and they think oh it's just this one time.”
Sunscreens are only effective for about an hour and a half before the active ingredients stop working. Also many people don't use enough. It takes about an ounce or a shot glass full to cover an adult.
“You think you are protected because you put sunscreen on in the morning, by lunchtime you're fried because I thought I was protected, but I've been outside all day not realizing that my skin is getting burned,” said Delahoussaye-Shields.
Just five sunburns over a lifetime increase the risk for melanoma.
Doctors Rachael Delahoussaye-Shields and Elizabeth Grieshaber are both board certified dermatologist and melanoma survivors.
Delahoussaye-Shields said, “For me it's an emotional response to this medical problem that we are having right now. I think there is more to it than just diagnosing and treating a cancer. I think you have to diagnose and treat the problem culturally which is that we are telling young women you need to be this, but we don't.
As a collegiate gymnast Delahoussaye-Shields fell victim to the pressure to fit in with the whole team and coaches tanning. She said, “So that I would look better before competition season started in January and I surely paid for it because within ten years of doing that I had a melanoma on my leg.”
Greishaber with LSU Health Dermatology said, “I’ve had two melanomas myself. I don’t obsess about every little brown spot.” She does keep a close eye out for changes.
“The ABCDE of melanoma so we have the asymmetry, border irregularity, color change, diameter greater than 6 mm, E is for anything evolving. My other criteria I tell patients is ugly duckling or something that doesn’t look like anything else,” said Greishaber.
It can seem daunting. Greishaber said, “When somebody is looking in the mirror if you are freckly and your very pale you are going to drive yourself crazy with ABCDE. Is this freckle asymmetric? Is that a little divot in it? That's why the ugly duckling is really nice.”
A yearly professional exam keeps you covered. “We can do a lot of other things for monitoring. We'll take photographs, we'll measure, we have dermospcopy so that's the little light that we can look through and actually see through the epidermis and see the pigment network,” according to Greishaber.
Myths and misconceptions play a role as well. Delahoussaye-Shields said, “In dermatology we grade your pigment and your ability to make pigment in different Fitzpatrick skin types and I've seen skin cancer and melanoma in every Fitzpatrick skin type.”
People that tan easily and dark skinned people need to be just as vigilant. Delahoussaye-Shields said, “The sun is UV radiation. When we say radiation from a medical standpoint people know ohh radiation that's tough stuff.”
Greishaber said, “I joke with a lot of my friends now when we're 35 or 40 which we are getting there and I look a lot younger than all of you because I stayed out of the sun. You're going to want to know what I did and I'm going to say I can't undo all that sun damage.”
Delahoussaye-Shields wants a culture change. She said, “I think my grandfather smoked when he was maybe 7 and if we saw a child smoking today we would probably call child protective services and be very concerned. We know smoking is bad. It causes lung cancer among other cancers. It is very bad. That's something that's pretty much understood across the county now, but 75 years ago people still considered some smoking to be healthy.”
She says we need that same type of shift in thinking when it comes to tanning and sun exposure.
“Today if we see a 7 year-old-come in with a sunburn we say ohh they must have had a really fun time this weekend. We don't have that same response of shock or horror that this child is doing something detrimental to his health,” said Delahoussaye-Shields.
Johnson said, “I've told every close friend of mine has heard me talk about it before. I think it's like literally raise an awareness for it because some people aren't so lucky, and they catch it too late. I think it happens through conversation and it's a ripple effect.”
A ripple effect these survivors know can save lives.
When detected early melanoma has a 99% five-year survival rate that drops to 20 percent when the disease is not diagnosed until later stages according to an American Cancer Society report from 2018.