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Taking Action with Skin Cancer on the Rise

Jun 08, 2015 04:17AM ● By Flint Zerangue, Sr.
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With the return of warmer weather and longer days, it’s good to remember that temperatures aren’t the only thing on the rise. Skin cancer rates continue to increase and cause more deaths each year, with one in five Americans expected to develop skin cancer in a lifetime.1

Despite progress in the fight against cancer, it is clear further education on skin cancer prevention and treatment is still needed. The U.S. Surgeon General’s recent “Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer” study is a promising step in urging cooperative action to help advance the national goal of preventing skin cancer. These reports show tanning bed use remains common, and teens use less sunscreen now than they did ten years ago.2 More people develop skin cancer because of tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking.3

It may take years for prevention to begin reversing the upward trend in skin cancer incidence and deaths, therefore, making strides in treatment will be essential – especially for people diagnosed with advanced forms of the disease. Unlike cases caught at the early stages that are generally curable, these advanced cases are incurable because the tumors have grown too large or spread to other parts of the body and can be deadly or disfiguring.

Fortunately, progress in treatment has rapidly accelerated in the past few years due to an improved understanding of how skin cancer forms. It began at the turn of the century when scientists identified proteins that play a critical role in how skin cells multiply and grow.

  • In basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer, scientists learned that damage to skin cells caused by UV radiation can lead to mutations in a group of proteins important for cell growth. As a result, excess signals among these proteins cause the cells to rapidly multiply, ultimately forming a cancerous tumor. In rare cases, basal cell carcinoma can become advanced by invading surrounding tissue or spreading to other parts of the body and cannot be treated with surgery or radiation. Doctors now know how to use medicines specifically designed to block the excess signals occurring in cancer cells in nearly all of these advanced cases.
  • In 2002, scientists discovered a mutation in a protein responsible for half of all advanced cases in melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. In just ten years after this discovery, medicines targeting this mutation were approved by the FDA. Recently, other medicines have also become available to reduce the likelihood the cancer will stop responding to treatment, and additional research has produced promising medicines that activate the immune system to fight the cancer.

These important discoveries and a greater understanding of the disease have led to the development of several new options for advanced skin cancer approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 2011. Prior to this time, medical breakthroughs in skin cancer were measured in decades, not months. Through science, skin cancer treatments have evolved from inadequate or non-existent to promising medicines targeting the exact makeup of cells in advanced skin cancer.

Year of FDA Approvals

As seasons change and UV rays grow stronger, it is essential for preventative measures to mirror the recent strides in treatment development. On both fronts research presses onward, aiming to reverse the rising tide of this deadly disease. Read more about the real dangers of skin cancer:

  • Robinson, JK. Sun exposure, sun protection, and vitamin D. JAMA 2005; 294:1541-43.
  • The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2014 [Accessed Jan. 27, 2015]
  • Wehner M, Chren M-M, Nameth D, et al. International prevalence of indoor tanning: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Dermatol 2014; 150(4):390-400. Doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.6896.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images (woman and dermatologist)

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