Rising Melanoma Rates Among Adolescents, Children Are Subject of New Study

Leslie McCarthy

Kimberly Johnson, PhD, MPH

April 9, 2013 – With springtime temperatures and warm weather approaching, the inclination to spend time outdoors is a strong one – especially for children who have been cooped up all winter.

But parents should be vigilant about sunscreen. And teenage girls might want to rethink springtime tanning and tanning beds. A new study out of the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis looks at the increase of melanoma, a form of skin cancer, in children and adolescents and what those trends might be telling us.

“Melanoma,” says senior author Kimberly Johnson, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School and a researcher at the Siteman Cancer Center, “is rare in children between the ages of 0 and 19 years, with just 400 to 500 individuals diagnosed annually in the U.S.

“Similar to what we’re seeing in adults, rates have increased over the past several decades,” she adds. “Although the exact reasons for this trend are unclear, parents should be vigilant about helping children and adolescents reduce their chance of developing melanoma by practicing sun-protective behaviors and avoiding tanning beds.”

The study, “Incidence of Childhood and Adolescent Melanoma in the United States: 1973-2009,” will be published online April 15 in the journal Pediatrics. The research is being presented during a poster session in Washington, D.C., April 9 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.

Lead author Jeannette Wong, MPH, of the Radiation Epidemiology Branch of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics of the National Cancer Institute, started the study as a student in the Master of Public Health Program at the Brown School. In addition to Wong and Johnson, co-authors include Jenine Harris, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School, and Carlos Rodriguez-Galindo, MD, of Harvard University.

“The study will help put melanoma on the radar of pediatricians,” says Johnson, who also is a faculty scholar at Washington University's Institute for Public Health.

A large percentage of a person’s lifetime exposure to UV radiation occurs during childhood. Children and adolescents spend more time outdoors, especially in the summer months, and may receive three times more UV rays than adults. In addition, an individual’s childhood UV exposure is a risk factor for melanoma later in life.

Johnson and the researchers used Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results data from nine U.S. cancer registries and found that the incidence of childhood and adolescent melanoma has been significantly increasing in the United States from 1973-2009 – an average of 2 percent per year.

Among the risk factors for melanoma are fair skin; light-colored hair and eyes; family history; prevalence of such things as birthmarks, moles or blemishes; and an increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

“The true impact of this research will be to increase awareness of the dangers of too much exposure to the sun and artificial tanning,” Johnson says.