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Skin Cancer in Women

Young and middle-age white women may be surprised that skin cancer has increased dramatically in their demographic.1,2Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young women.3 One in 44 white women will develop melanoma in her lifetime.4 The probability of basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma is much higher, as these types of non-melanoma skin cancers are more common.

How common is skin cancer in women?

Even though melanoma has increased in younger women, it is still most common in older individuals. Nearly 70 percent of melanoma cases are diagnosed after age 55.6 Per 100,000 white women, there are 18 new cases in women ages 35-39 years, compared with 51 cases in women ages 65-59.7

Women who are 49 years old or younger are more likely to develop melanoma than any other cancer, except breast cancer or thyroid cancer.8 White women are far more likely to develop skin cancer than women of other races and ethnicities. The age-adjusted rate of melanoma among white non-Hispanic women is 20.4 per 100,000, which means out of 100,000 women, 31,158 will be diagnosed with melanoma, after adjusting for age.6 Among African American women, the age-adjusted rate is 0.8; among Hispanic women, the age-adjusted rate is 4.4.6 That being said, non-white patients with melanoma are less likely to survive melanoma than white patients, due to later stage at diagnosis and the fact that in people of color, the melanoma is often in areas not commonly exposed to the sun.9

Why is skin cancer increasing in young women?

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the main risk factor for skin cancer. UV radiation comes from the sun and indoor tanning beds.

Indoor tanning is a strong skin cancer risk factor in young women. Women younger than 30 who tan indoors are 6 times more likely to have melanoma than women who do not tan indoors.10 Any indoor tanning increases your skin cancer risk – and the more you tan, the higher your risk.10 Even one indoor tanning session can increase your risk of skin cancer – both melanoma and non-melanoma types of skin cancer.11 Despite the risk, about 30 percent of white women ages 18 to 25 years tan indoors.12

Although sunscreen use is increasing among women, a large percentage are still leaving their skin exposed to the sun’s UV rays. Survey results show that 37 percent of women use sunscreen and 35 percent seek shade.12 Very few wear wide-brimmed hats (4 percent) or long-sleeved shirts (5 percent); wearing long pants is more common (26 percent). Half of all women—and two-thirds of white women—have been sunburned at least once in the past year.10 Melanoma risk increases with each sunburn, and even one sunburn can increase your risk.13

Some of the increase in melanoma may be due to more awareness. Patients and doctors are more likely to recognize and diagnose skin cancer today than they were decades ago. The role of hormones and gene-environment interactions need more study.15

What should I look for?

In women, melanoma is most likely to develop on the legs.5 Melanoma often appears as a large, irregularly shaped, pigmented (dark) lesion. If a mole or lesion looks suspicious to you, make an appointment to see your primary care physician or a dermatologist.

Although melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer, non-melanoma skin cancers are more common. It is important to recognize signs of basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and the precancer actinic keratosis (AK), and see a dermatologist regularly for checkups and monitoring of any moles or skin changes.

Regular skin exams by your doctor may be important for people who are at high risk.3,15 Skin cancer is usually curable when it is caught early.

How common is it for women to die from skin cancer?

The best numbers about skin cancer survival are about melanoma. Cases of melanoma are tracked in cancer registries or databases with official cancer data. BCC and SCC are not tracked in registries, which can make it harder to have reliable and updated statistics and other information.

Survival rates in women are slightly higher than survival rates in men at all ages and stages of melanoma.7 The reason for this is not known at this time. The overall 5-year survival rate is 95.5 percent for women diagnosed before age 65 years and 90.3 percent for women diagnosed after age 65.

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Written by: Sarah O'Brien | Last reviewed: November 2019.