As Temperatures Increase, So Does Melanoma

Researchers site five reasons for increased rates of skin cancer — including climate change
A dermatologist examining a patient's back

Summer’s in full swing, and across the U.S., temperatures are way up — and so, unfortunately, is the rate of skin cancer. According to AIM at Melanoma, a global foundation geared toward improving treatment and finding a cure for the disease, the diagnosis rate of invasive melanoma has increased by 32% over the last decade. Stretched to the last 15 years, the figure rises to 46%.

In a statement to a Boston-area news outlet, skin cancer specialist Dr. Abigail Waldman of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said her ward is "busier than ever," even opening on Saturdays to make room for the influx of new cases.

One oft-suspected culprit? "Increased UV radiation," she said — an unfortunate consequence of climate change.

Warming weather could be increasing skin cancer risk

According to a 2023 study published in the peer-reviewed oncology journal Cancers, melanoma rates have been on the rise over the last several decades — even as sunscreen use has also increased.

The researchers offer five hypotheses to explain the conundrum of increased diagnoses even with increased protection. Their educated guesses include higher levels of patient and physician awareness, improper use of sunscreen, the relatively recent inclusion of UVA protection in most commercially available sunblocks, and, in some parts of the world, lack of regulation over sunscreen formulas.

The team’s fifth hypothesis: "The changing climate increases melanoma risk directly via an increased UV index, and the warmer temperatures may encourage more time spent outside exposed to the sun."

And temperatures have indeed been warmer. According to NASA, 2023’s summer was the hottest since record-keeping began in 1880; a study published in Nature upped the ante, reconstructing temperatures from centuries past and declaring 2023’s summer the hottest in two millennia.

Along with the increase in incidences of skin cancer, warming temperatures have also been increasing storm activity (leading to costlier disaster-related damages). Insurers have consequently begun pulling homeowners insurance policies from disaster-prone areas like California and Florida — and those that do offer policies charge more for less coverage.

Decreasing your risk of melanoma and other cancers

It’s important to understand that not all skin cancers are melanomas. Non-melanoma skin cancers form in the basal, squamous or Merkel cells, while melanomas specifically form in the melanocytes — the cells that produce and contain the pigment melanin.

Both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers are highly survivable if discovered and treated early, but melanoma is considered the most deadly form of skin cancer because of its quick rate of growth and ability to spread rapidly to other organs.

Melanoma is the fifth most common form of cancer in adults, and the third most common among those between the ages of 20 and 39, according to AIM at Melanoma. People with paler complexions are at substantially higher risks than Black and brown people — and even one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence boosts one’s chances of developing melanoma down the line.

Proper application of sunscreen can help, as can avoiding overexposure altogether. Furthermore, studies suggest that not all melanoma is related to sun exposure, so it’s a good idea to thoroughly check your skin regularly — and, if you’re at a higher risk level, get a regular check by a dermatologist.

Early-onset cancers of all types are on the rise, so vigilance is crucial both inside the body and out. Choosing a health insurance plan that covers annual wellness appointments is a good way to ensure you’re getting the care you need, including regular cancer screenings.

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