Utah has highest skin cancer rates in the country


Outside the Utah County Health Department a sign on the sidewalk says “Free Cancer Clinic Today.” Jackie Black, who runs the clinic, said the sign saves lives every year. Utah has the highest rate of skin cancer in the country, with 90 to 100 deaths annually according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an era of tan-through clothing and tanning tattoos, young adults don’t seem to be worried about their skin. Cancer and wrinkles seem to be non-issues for the instant-gratification generation who worries more about convenience than their skin’s future.

The Facts

In May the CDC published a study saying adults ages 18 to 29 are more likely to get sunburned today than in 2005. This five percent increase means, when outdoors, young adults are less likely to wear sunscreen, and when they do wear sunscreen it is inadequately applied.

Epidemiologist Meghan Balough studies cancer rates for the Utah State Health Department. She said the Health Department has not been able to identify why the skin cancer rate in Utah is so high.

“There are a number of possible factors like the lighter natural skin color of our population, our higher elevation and general sunscreen use,” Balough said. “Even though we have one of the highest rates, melanoma isn’t very common.”

The Utah State Health Department is currently processing data that will identify how frequently Utah residents get sunburned and why. Balough said the data should give insight into people’s habits and will direct future skin cancer programs.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen that filters both UVA and UVB rays, is water resistant and has an SPF of 30 or higher. In addition to this, it should be applied daily at least 15 minutes before going outside.

Many Don’t Worry About It

Chelsea Kelley, a California native studying sociology, said despite the fact her sister and father have already had cancers removed, she is not overly concerned about covering up and only uses sunscreen on her face because it’s in her makeup.

“My daily life doesn’t seem to require sunscreen,” Kelley said. “I think if I had a job where I was outside more, I would think (about wearing sunscreen), but since I’m inside all day, I don’t.”

However, Kelley said she be more concerned about it.

“Last time I went skiing, I didn’t think about sunscreen,” Kelley said. “I got a horrible sunburn on my face, neck and part of my chest.”

Senior Lauren Nielsen is half Filipino. She said while growing up in California she never worried about sunscreen.

“I don’t burn,” Nielsen said. “So I just don’t wear (sunscreen).”

Nielsen said she sees cancer and wrinkles as long-term possibilities and said wearing sunscreen is like eating vegetables: “We know we should eat them, but we don’t unless their slathered in butter,” Nielsen said. “I’ve never had a sunburn that hurt. I just don’t worry about it.”

Is It Cancer?

Kristi Smith oversees the skin cancer campaigns for the Utah State Health Department. The campaigns advocate sun safety and education for Utah residents.

“Typically we focus on melanoma because it is the most deadly,” Smith said. “We are seeing it come up in younger generations and in places on the body where you wouldn’t normally find it.”

Smith said the best way to identify a melanoma is to remember the ABCs, as stated in the infobox, when checking moles.

“The evidence shows it is best to teach children how to practice sun-safe habits so they can be protected the rest of their lives,” Smith said.

In Utah County, the free monthly clinic at the Health Department screens 700 to 800 patients a year for skin cancer.

“We find cancer every year,” Black said. “Sometimes people just don’t detect it. You want to get it when it’s in the curable stages.”

Black said all kinds of people come to the clinic to have their moles checked.

“A while ago a man who was down and out came into the clinic,” Black said. “He had no place to go so he came here. We were able to get him in for a consultation and surgery. They had to remove part of his ear, but now he’s cancer free. That would have been a tragic end had he not gotten that taken care of. It was a nice story for us.”



    • Asymmetry: If one half looks different than the other it could be a problem.
    • Border: Normal moles have regular edges and are perfect circles.
    • Color: Black, blue or any color variation is an indication you should get checked.
    • Diameter: Moles should not be bigger than a pencil’s erasure.

Evolution: Any change in a mole could be a red flag.

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