image showing melanoma cancer cells

Why Are Arizonans at Greater Risk of Skin Cancer?

Melanoma rates in Arizona are significantly higher than the U.S. national average, according to recent data from the National Cancer Institute, while some reports indicate that skin cancer rates in the Grand Canyon State may be up to 40% higher than reported.

What might be behind these statistics?

“The two biggest factors for onset of melanoma and other skin cancers are skin color — the lighter the skin color, the bigger the risk — and ultraviolet (UV) light exposure,” explains Aleksandar Sekulic, M.D., Ph.D., director of dermatology at City of Hope® Cancer Center Phoenix. “Arizona has a very high UV index, as well as very rapid population growth, and much of that population is Caucasian.”

This article takes a closer look at the reasons behind increasing melanoma diagnoses in Arizona, covering topics including:

If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with melanoma and are looking for a second opinion or to discuss your options, call us 24/7 at (877) 524-4673.

What’s Behind High Melanoma Rates in Arizona?

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Aleksandar Sekulic, M.D., Ph.D.

Melanoma rates in Arizona have been increasing year over year since 2007. In 2020, melanoma was the state’s fourth-most commonly diagnosed cancer.

UV light is by far the biggest risk factor for developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, Dr. Sekulic says.

“UV exposure leads to damage to the DNA in the skin cells, which can cause melanoma,” he says, adding that UV light is not only found outdoors in the blazing sun. “Tanning beds have been shown scientifically to significantly increase risk for melanoma, so avoiding them is really critical.”

Research has also shown that melanoma is more often related to higher-intensity UV exposure earlier in life — “so a sunburn in childhood is much more associated with onset of melanoma than with onset of squamous cell carcinoma, another common skin cancer, for instance.”

Arizona’s climate, which is becoming increasingly hot, is also a factor. The UV index in Phoenix, for example, ranged from “high” to “extreme” for six months during 2023, according to the National Weather Service. Even though incidence rates for melanoma are increasing among Arizonans, treatment options for patients are improving and the death rate for the disease is declining. The key is catching skin cancer early, when treatments are relatively simpler and may be most effective.

Reducing Melanoma Risk

Simple steps you can take to lower your risk for developing melanoma or other skin cancers include:

  • Staying in the shade when you are outdoors
  • Using sunscreen that has a sun protection factor of SPF15 or more when you’re in the sun,
  • Wearing sunglasses that provide protection from UV light
  • Wearing a hat that shades your face and neck
  • Avoiding the outdoors during the middle of the day, if possible
  • Avoiding sunbeds, tanning beds and indoor tanning
  • Examining your own skin for any changes in moles or spots or the appearance of any new spots

Common factors that may increase your risk for developing melanoma include:

  • A prior melanoma diagnosis
  • A family member who has been diagnosed with the disease and has had a lot of moles and lighter skin color
  • Health conditions that require drugs that suppress the immune system

Lastly, “the more sun exposure somebody has had over their lifetime, the more important it is to screen them for melanoma more frequently,” explains Dr. Sekulic. “This particularly highlights the importance of sun protection for children.”

Arizona Cancer Screening

For most people, screening for skin cancers like melanoma starts at home, with a self-examination.

“Self-examination, monitoring and self-awareness are really the mainstay of detection,” says Dr. Sekulic. “Even if you are examined by a physician, that is only one point in time, whereas you can see your own skin at any point in time.”

Because melanoma can develop anywhere on the body — even in places that have had no sun exposure — it is important to perform a full exam. What you should look for:

  • Changes in existing moles or lesions on your skin
  • New skin growths or lesions
  • A spot on your skin that does not heal within two weeks

The “ABCDE” rule is a good guideline to keep in mind when looking for changes in how a lesion, spot or mole looks or feels, as detailed below.

Asymmetry: Is the shape of the mole or spot asymmetrical?

Border: Have the edges of the mole become blurred or uneven?

Color: Is the spot’s color black and brown, or white, gray and pink.

Diameter: Is the mole bigger than about 6 millimeters (about a quarter of an inch)?

Evolving: Has the texture, shape or color of the mole or spot changed over time?

If you see any of these issues with a mole or skin spot, it is best to see your primary care doctor or a dermatologist. A dermatologist often uses a technique called dermoscopy, which involves using a small microscope to examine the skin more closely for signs of melanoma.

The Future of Melanoma Treatment

For patients with more advanced cases of melanoma, innovative research will be key to continued improvements in skin cancer care and treatment, Dr. Sekulic says.

“There is work ongoing on molecular genomic analysis to better understand how skin cancers develop, respond to therapy and develop resistance,” he says. “Understanding and predicting responses to various therapies is a critical question for the work physician-scientists are doing.”

If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with melanoma and are looking for a second opinion or to discuss your options, call us 24/7 at (877) 524-4673.