Health Series Chapter 1: the evolution of skin cancer

When it comes to skin cancer, greater awareness has been the key to growing prevention efforts across the decades. From the time when pale was considered a sign of the elite to the tanning boom of the 60s, we look at how attitudes, information and incidences of skin cancer have evolved throughout the years and where that puts us — you included — today. In the first of this new health series, we look at the evolution of skin cancer through the ages.

Table of Contents

Tanning and skin tone across the ages

Skin tone has long been a signifier of privilege. Up until the industrial revolution, being pale reflected your elite place in society. It meant you didn’t have to toil in the fields or do manual labor, but instead, had the luxury to spend your hours indoors cultivating your appearance. But, over time, as more work turned indoors to the factories and mines, paleness soon became associated with a lower status while people with money had the time for leisure and lounging around in the sun.

Many say that tanning’s popularity was cemented in the 1920s after the famous fashion designer, Coco Chanel, was spotted sporting a bronzed glow following a cruise around the Mediterranean. By the 1960s, tanning really took off as more and more people gained the disposable income necessary to travel to sunny locales, returning home with a much-desired tan. Tanning became widespread in the 1980s and 90s as self-tanning lotions and tanning beds made the look accessible to wider swaths of the population, allowing everyone to get their own “healthy” glow and normalizing it as just another part of a person’s beauty routine.

Of course, it should be noted that this preference for tanning was not seen in all regions of the world. Beauty standards vary widely from culture to culture, and in many areas, especially throughout Asia, pale skin was and still is considered the look of choice.

The rise of skin cancer

In recent years, our knowledge of skin cancer has grown, and after decades of increasing popularity, many people are starting to realize that tanning is simply not worth the risk. Today we understand that almost 90 percent of skin cancers are associated with UV radiation from the sun and that, on average, a person’s risk for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns throughout their lifetime.

But despite the growing awareness in some communities, incidences of skin cancer, overall, are on the rise. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, over the past three decades, more people have developed skin cancer than all other cancers combined. In the UK, malignant melanoma incidence rates have increased by 360% since the late 1970s, as cited by Cancer Research UK. In the US, the National Cancer Institute reports that the rate of new melanoma cases among adults has tripled since the 1970s, from 7.9 per 100,000 people in 1975 to 24 per 100,000 in 2013.

With greater awareness of the dangers of sun exposure in recent years, it begs the question; why are we seeing higher rates of skin cancer now?

Factors that could be leading to higher skin cancer rates

There are several theories about the notable rise in skin cancer in recent years. One is that with greater screening and public service campaigns, more incidences of skin cancer are being caught early and reported. Other ideas point to the diminishing ozone layer which increases our exposure to radiation from the sun. The World Health Organization estimates that a 10 percent decrease in ozone levels will result in an additional 300,000 non-melanoma and 4,500 melanoma skin cancer cases.

The role that tanning continues to play cannot be denied either. A study by the American Academy of Dermatology found that using tanning beds increases the risk of developing melanoma by 59 percent. And according to research out of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, melanoma rates are increasing in adolescents and young adults, especially in young females. The doctors who authored the study noted a correlation between higher rates in young women and studies that show over 70% of tanning salon patrons in 2013 were Caucasian girls aged 15 to 29.

Genetics is a big contributor as well. Predispositions for developing skin cancer are passed on through gene mutations from generation to generation. The Skin Cancer Foundation found that about one in every 10 patients diagnosed with the disease has a family member with a history of melanoma.

The movement towards protection

While skin cancer is on the rise, governments and health organizations have been scrambling to find ways to deal with the issue. Over the past decade, many public health campaigns aim to share knowledge and dispel stubborn beauty myths.

Australia was a trailblazer in this respect with their Slip! Slop! Slap! and SunSmart Program campaigns. These campaigns, launched in 1980, resulted in a huge increase in awareness among Australians and a decrease in overexposure to UV rays. With targeted messaging, educational resources, policy development and a host of other tactics, Australia was effective in changing attitudes and behaviours that led to more individuals detecting their dangerous moles and skin conditions earlier.

Other countries have taken their own measures to address the issue of skin cancer. Cancer Research UK teamed up with leading UK skin clinic, Skin, to offer free skin scans showing people the UV damage hiding beneath their skin, and the US Skin Cancer Foundation launched the campaign “Go With Your Own Glow” in 2008 to encourage people to embrace their natural skin tone.

Skin cancer is preventable

The further evolution of skin cancer is not inevitable. The emphasis on prevention is one SkinVision hopes to ingrain into the minds of the public even further. With early detection, skin cancer is almost always curable.

So, what can you do?

  • Educate yourself on the symptoms and signs of skin cancer so you know what to watch out for. Learn the basics of sunscreen and make it a part of your daily routine.
  • Do your body a favor by checking your skin — it can be as easy as checking it before getting into the shower or asking a loved one to inspect those hard to reach places when your skin is exposed.
  • Use your knowledge to help others make smart decisions in the sun and help to bring these numbers down.

Protecting minors from skin cancer – this is what you can do

Further information on what tanning is and why we need it

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