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Skin Cancer in Arizona: Stats, facts and new immunotherapy drugs making strides

This article is Sponsored by Dignity Health
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With some of the nation’s hottest and brightest sunshine, Arizona is near the top when it comes to skin cancer rates, and Arizonans should take particular care against sun exposure.

In Arizona, 18.8 people per 100,000 developed melanoma skin cancer in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When viewed against neighboring states, that compared to 37.3 in Utah, 20.7 in Colorado, 13.5 for New Mexico and 21.8 for California. In Arizona, awareness and prevention programs are definitely part of the success equation when it comes to battling the disease, but there are still many myths that need to be addressed.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and until recently, the prognosis for patients with advanced melanoma was grim. Today, there is hope, thanks to integrated treatments and new cancer drugs, such as pembrolizumab.

Pembrolizumab (also known as Keytruda®) is a type of immunotherapy drug now approved by the FDA to treat advanced melanoma and other cancers.

The drug gained widespread attention when former President Jimmy Carter received Keytruda® after his melanoma had spread to his brain. After he was diagnosed in 2015, Carter was told he had just a few weeks to live. Thanks to the immunotherapy drug and healthy living, Carter has been cancer free ever since.

A recent clinical trial showed 40 percent of advanced-stage melanoma patients were still alive three years after receiving the drug and 15 percent had complete remission, according to a WebMD report.

Exciting as this news is to the cancer community, prevention still remains the best strategy against skin cancer and that means limiting sun exposure.

“Natural and artificial UV light exposure is still the biggest risk factor for developing skin cancer,” said Dr. Debra Wong, medical oncologist at The University of Arizona Cancer Center at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

While the sun is often to blame, less common risk factors for melanoma can also pose a threat.

“People whose immune systems are suppressed—individuals on anti-rejection drugs for an organ transplant, for example—can be predisposed to getting skin cancers,” Wong explains.

She also reports that a personal history of melanoma, large numbers of moles or atypical moles and certain genetic factors can increase the risk for melanoma.

Scientists have known for some time that people with specific physical traits are more likely to get skin cancer. Those with fair skin, green or blue eyes, and red or blond hair, for example, must take extra precautions.

The belief that dark-skinned individuals are immune to skin cancer is erroneous. In reality, data from the CDC shows that people of any ethnicity can develop melanoma and other skin cancers.

Dr. Wong emphasizes that wearing protective clothing that covers your arms and legs, a wide-brimmed hat and UV-protective sunglasses along with ample amounts of a broad-spectrum sunscreen anytime you are outdoors is essential to protecting your skin against sun damage.

Traditional sunscreen works primarily against ultraviolet B rays, which cause sunburn. Ultraviolet A rays don’t cause sunburn, but they can cause wrinkles and skin cancer. SPF sunscreen ratings apply only to UVB rays. To get protection against both types of sun damage, you must read the sunscreen label and make sure your product is broad-spectrum against both UVA and UVB and that the SPF is 30 or higher. Remember to apply sunscreen regularly, especially after sweating or swimming. Importantly, stay in the shade or avoid sun exposure altogether if possible, particularly between the hours of most intense light (typically 10 a.m.-4 p.m., though the Arizona days are getting longer as we move into summer).

There is a mistaken belief that using sunscreen blocks the body’s ability to produce Vitamin D. Dr. Wong says that the benefits of sunscreen and minimizing sun exposure far outweigh the risks, and that the average healthy person will obtain adequate Vitamin D from fortified foods. Individuals at high risk for Vitamin D insufficiency or deficiency can be screened and supplementation can be given if needed. Dr. Wong also notes that sun damage can still occur on cloudy days, so it is important to cover up and use sunscreen even if the sun is obscured.

While there have been recent significant strides forward in the skin cancer realm, there is still work to be done when it comes to preventing and treating melanoma and other cancers. The University of Arizona Cancer Center at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center is one of the leading healthcare facilities dedicated to cancer research and comprehensive care for individuals with cancer, making the future of cancer survival look bright.