Jonathan noticed an irregularly shaped skin blemish on his forearm one day, but thought little of it. At 70 years of age, it seemed to him just another natural and harmless sign of aging. A routine medical exam, however, produced a radically different diagnosis. According to his doctor, Jonathan's skin blemish was in fact a dangerous form of skin cancer.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Vermont, accounting for nearly one-quarter of all deaths in the state. Each year, more than 2,600 new cases are diagnosed and more than 1,100 Vermonters die annually from some sort of cancer. Cancer develops as result of a complex mix of factors related to our lifestyle decisions (such as what we eat and whether we smoke), heredity, and our environment.
Of the deaths attributable to cancer, the majority occur in individuals 70 years of age or older. Vermonters of all ages get cancer, but nearly all types are more common in middle-aged people and the elderly than in the young. Skin cancer, a preventable form of cancer, is the most common type of cancer in Vermont and the United States. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer involving melanocytes, cells that produce the pigment that colors our skin. Melanoma is much less common than non-melanoma skin cancers, but it is far more serious. Nationally, it accounts for about 4 percent of skin cancer cases but causes about 79 percent of skin cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that skin cancer claims the lives of nearly 10,000 Americans annually.
Many Vermonters may not believe they are at risk for skin cancer and therefore take few precautions to avoid overexposure. However, data show that Vermont's melanoma death rate is actually higher than the U.S. rate.
Skin cancer is more common among individuals with lightly pigmented skin. Individuals with sun-sensitive skin types, such as those who easily burn and have little ability to tan, tend to be at greater risk for skin cancer due to the higher likelihood of acute sunburns when exposed to ultraviolet radiation.
Cumulative sunlight exposure over a prolonged period may also be important in the development of non-melanoma skin cancer. Episodic, relatively infrequent exposure to a large amount of sunlight sufficient to cause sunburn is believed to play a major role in the development of melanoma.
Malignant melanoma when diagnosed at an early stage can usually be cured, but melanoma diagnosed at a late stage is more likely to spread and cause death.