Skin Cancer in Women

Young and middle-age white women may be surprised that skin cancer has increased dramatically in their demographic.1,2 Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young women.3 Indeed, before age 50, women are slightly more likely to develop melanoma than men.4,5

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.

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% 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

White women are far more likely to develop skin cancer than women of other races and ethnicities. There are 20.4 new cases of melanoma per 100,000 white women of all ages, which is much higher than the incidence in black Americans (1 case), Asian/Pacific Islanders (1.1 cases), American Indians/Alaska Natives (4.6 cases), or Hispanics (4.4 cases).6

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.8 Any indoor tanning increases your skin cancer risk – and the more you tan, the higher your risk.8 Despite the risk, about 30% of white women ages 18 to 25 years tan indoors.9

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% of women use sunscreen and 35% seek shade.10 Very few wear wide-brimmed hats (4%) or long-sleeved shirts (5%); wearing long pants is more common (26%). Half of all women—and 2/3 of white women—have been sunburned at least once in the past year.10 Melanoma risk increases with each sunburn.10

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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.11

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, squamous cell carcinoma, and the precancer actinic keratosis.

Regular skin exams by your doctor may be important for people who are at high risk.3,12 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.

Survival rates in women are slightly higher than survival rates in men at all ages and stages of melanoma.7 The 5-year survival rate is 95.5% for women diagnosed before age 65 years and 90.3% for women diagnosed after age 65.

In white women younger than 50, there are fewer than 2 deaths per 100,000 people.7 In older adults, the death rate rises steadily from 5 per 100,000 (age 65-69) to 16.3 per 100,000 (age 85+).

Written by: Sarah O'Brien | Last reviewed: May 2017.
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