Douse up before you play
Tribune staff writer
Skiers, golfers, hikers, bikers and sun worshipers beware: skin cancer rates for El Dorado County are 55 percent higher than in Sacramento, according to a county health report released last week.
The statistics describe melanoma, the most rare but also most deadly form of skin cancer. The report also indicates rates in El Dorado are not only rising but have been consistently higher than the Sacramento area for a decade.
“As far as higher incidents of melanoma goes, we don’t have a clear understanding of that, we haven’t done any particular study. Probably people in El Dorado County are generally more active than people in other counties,” said Lois Hathway, a health program manager for the El Dorado Count Public Health Department.
“I think there is definitely an increase in the real incidences of cancer, but people are also more aware of it and going to their doctors about it,” said Dr. Bruce Miller, a dermatologist in Placerville.
As for why El Dorado County would be higher than its neighbors, Dr. Miller said he didn’t know, but guessed it was because, “we do have a higher percentage of older people.”
More ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth’s surface at higher altitudes, creating more likelihood of sunburns and premature skin aging. The same is true at lower latitudes, places closer to the equator, such as Hawaii.
Studies have found that UV rays were 60 percent stronger at 8,500 feet in Vail, Colo., than in New York. At 8,500 feet, skin cancer is 115 times more likely than at sea level at the same latitude. Heavenly Mountain Resort’s highest lift tops out at 10,040 feet.
The El Dorado county health report said for every 100,000 people, there were an average 28.9 reported cases of melanoma in the county, compared to 18.6 cases in the Sacramento area between 1996-2000. That’s an increase of 47 percent from an average 19.7 cases reported between 1992 and 1996 in El Dorado.
The report did not give information on other less serious types of skin cancers, basal and squamous cell carcinomas.
“Carcinomas aren’t reported as much because they aren’t as serious,” Hathway explained. These types of cancer are more obvious and detectable and are more easily treated with surgery.
South Lake Tahoe had a lower rate, proportionally, than the rest of the county. From 1996-2000, the city claimed only 7.5 percent of diagnosed malignant melanomas, even though 22 percent of the population of the county lives here, Hathway said. The 1996-2000 period is the latest data available, she said, because cancer information takes a long time to report.
On the Nevada side, Washoe and Douglas counties reported a total 323 cases of skin cancer between 1997 and 2001. Of all cancers reported in the two counties to the state’s cancer registry, melanoma rates jumped from 12.7 percent in 1997 to 19.2 percent in 2001.
Melanoma affects cells called melanocytes, which contribute pigment to skin. Melanocytes are in the deepest layer of skin, so a cancerous growth more easily spreads to other body organs.
Melanoma is the hardest skin cancer to detect and can kill someone within six months. While it accounts for only 4 percent of skin cancers, it is one of the most common cancers in young adults.
According the American Academy of Dermatologists, 1 million new cases of skin cancer will occur this year and 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer. The AAD recommends not only that you use sunscreen every day, but also that you cover up with hats, sunglasses and protective clothing.