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For young women, melanoma rates on the rise

In the past four decades, the incidence of melanoma has increased eight-fold among women ages 18 – 39.

By Joyce Ho, Stacey Naggiar, and Dr. Nancy Snyderman
NBC News

Growing up in Lakewood, Colo., Jodi Duke was like most high school girls her age -- eager for the beautiful bronze skin so often popularized in the media. 

“I think there's a lot of peer pressure,” said Duke. “You look in magazines, you look on TV, people are not pale ... and that, coupled with the peer pressure at school, I think leads to behavior that you seek out how to make yourself look different.”

She found indoor tanning beds the best quick fix to get the glow she wanted and developed a habit of visiting the salon once a week. Before she knew it, was going twice a week and eventually, every day.

At age 19, after a year of daily tanning, Duke was diagnosed with melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

“I think I was kind of in a state of shock,” said Duke, who is now 36.  “I don’t remember a lot about that day except going in the bathroom and just crying.”

Duke is not alone. A new study published Monday in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found the incidence of melanoma in young adults is soaring, with a six-fold increase in the past 40 years. The rise is particularly noteworthy in young females aged 18 to 39, where the incidence of melanoma increased eight-fold from 1970 to 2009, and four-fold in young adult males.

Tanning beds to blame?

Although the study didn’t examine why the numbers have increased, the researchers say gender-specific behaviors such as tanning -- a popular activity among young women -- may be behind this alarming trend.

“The number one thing – stop going to go tanning beds,” said dermatologist Dr. Jerry Brewer, one of the study’s authors. “All correlations point towards that as the reason for the increase.”

For Duke, who said she always knew in the back of her mind that tanning was unhealthy, receiving a melanoma diagnosis was a wake-up call.

Melanoma survivor Jodi Duke discusses her disease, treatment and the measures she takes to keep herself and her daughters safe in the sun.

“When I got this diagnosis I just knew,” she said. “And I never went back to another tanning bed.”

In response to Brewer’s study, the Indoor Tanning Association released a statement saying, “The authors attempt to make indoor tanning the story while ignoring other more likely risk factors such as heredity, sunburning outdoors and more frequent travel to sunny vacation locations over the last decade where severe sunburns are more likely to occur.”

The organization also pointed out that the population studied is not a representative sample of America. Minnesota, where the research was conducted, has a disproportionately high number of fair-skinned individuals who have higher risk for melanoma. More than 250 young adults, all of whom lived in Olmstead County, participated in the study where they were tracked for four decades as part of the Rochester Epidemiology Project.

The study authors acknowledged the demographic and socioeconomic makeup of the study population as a potential limitation to their findings.

Mortality rates decreasing

The findings were not all negative, however. Researchers found that although the incidence of melanoma is rising among young people, the mortality rates are actually decreasing. Brewer said that these better survival rates are most likely attributable to advances in early detection and awareness of changing moles.

According to Brewer, the important message to take away from the study is that young people can get cancer, and they’re not as invincible as they think.  In fact, another study published in the journal “Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention,” found that people who have used tanning beds are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have not.

Warning signs

According to dermatologist Dr. Robert Dellavalle from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, individuals with blue or green eyes, freckles, moles, or red hair are at higher risk for development of melanomas. Asians and those with darker skin have a lower risk, but may find themselves with more aggressive diagnoses when melanoma is found.

Experts caution that everyone should use SPF to protect themselves from sun damage.  Those with several risk factors for melanoma should exercise careful sun protection and supplement their diets with Vitamin D, the major nutrient we normally receive from sunlight.

After surgery at age 19 to remove a large portion of her arm and 48 weeks of immunotherapy treatment, Duke has now been cancer free for many years. In Aurora, Colorado, she now teaches her young daughters about the importance of sunscreen, and the scar on her arm is a constant reminder to them of what could happen without proper skin protection. 

“If i had to go back I think that one of the obvious answers is that I wouldn't ever tan,” said Duke. “And I would tell myself, ‘You look great the way you are.’”

NBC’s Wonbo Woo contributed to this report.