Surgeon General Issues Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer

Surgeon general calls skin cancer major public health problem and highlights dangers of outdoor and indoor UV rays

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) We're now in the heart of summer, which means many of us are spending more time outside and in the sun. So, it seems to be an appropriate moment to address skin cancer risk and prevention — which is exactly what the US surgeon general is doing.

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US. That's despite the fact that most skin cancers can be prevented. As rates of these cancers continue to grow, acting US Surgeon General Boris D. Lushniak is calling skin cancer "a major public health problem."

Lushniak has issued a call to action that has several key messages. He calls attention to the dangers of ultraviolet (UV) light, which is behind some of the most common skin cancers. While sunlight is the main source of UV rays, indoor tanning lamps also produce cancer-causing UV rays.

The surgeon general is urging Americans to take long-recommended measures to prevent skin cancer, such as using sunscreen and finding shade when spending time outside. He acknowledges that avoiding UV exposure from the sun may be hard for some people, but that "UV exposure from indoor tanning is completely avoidable."

"Seek shade when spending time outdoors."

In a press statement from the US Department of Health & Human Services, Assistant Secretary for Health Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH, highlighted why this call to action is needed.

"While many cancers, such as lung cancer, are decreasing, rates of melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — are increasing," Dr. Koh said. "As a skin oncologist who worked in this field for many years, I have cared for both the young and old with skin cancers. Almost all of these cancers were caused by unnecessary ultraviolet radiation exposure, usually from excessive time in the sun or from the use of indoor tanning devices."

According to the surgeon general's report, almost 5 million people are treated for skin cancer each year. That treatment amounts to an estimated annual cost of $8.1 billion. Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, is responsible for nearly 9,000 deaths and about $3.3 billion in treatment costs each year.

"Tanned skin is damaged skin, and we need to shatter the myth that tanned skin is a sign of health. When people tan or get sunburned, they increase their risk of getting skin cancer later in life," Lushniak said.

The Surgeon General's Call to Action outlines five strategic goals to prevent skin cancer in the US:

  • Increase opportunities for sun protection in outdoor settings
  • Provide individuals with the information they need to make informed, healthy choices about UV exposure
  • Promote policies that advance the national goal of preventing skin cancer
  • Reduce harms from indoor tanning
  • Strengthen research, surveillance, monitoring and evaluation related to skin cancer prevention

To achieve these goals, Lushniak outlines numerous strategies. These strategies include increasing shade in outdoor recreational settings; encouraging sun-protective behavior in outdoor settings; partnering with health care systems, schools, workplaces and others to promote skin cancer prevention and education; tailoring messages toward youth to discourage indoor tanning; and many other tactics.

"The main culprit behind skin cancer is unprotected intermittent and chronic ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) exposure. Prevention is the key to minimizing the occurrence of skin cancer and resultant complications," said Victoria Sharon, MD, DTMH, assistant professor of Dermatology & Dermatologic Surgery at the University of California, Davis Medical Center.

"Since the majority of skin cancer is in large part due to intermittent and chronic unprotected UV exposure, prevention goes a long way in the dramatic reduction in the incidence of disease," she said.

"I tell my patients to wear sun protective clothing throughout the day (including a wide brim hat), apply sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every morning prior to leaving the house with frequent re-application if in the sun throughout the day or after sweating, and if possible avoid spending a large amount of time outdoors between the hours of greatest UV intensity (roughly between 10 am and 3 pm, depending on the time of year)," Dr. Sharon told dailyRx News.

In his call to action, Lushniak writes that skin cancer prevention is a collaborative effort. He calls on governments at all levels; members of the business, health care and education communities; community organizations; and individuals to become partners in this effort.

"We want all Americans to lead healthy, active lives," Lushniak said. "We all need to take an active role to prevent skin cancer by protecting our skin while being outdoors and avoiding intentional sun exposure and indoor tanning."

Review Date: 
July 29, 2014
Last Updated:
July 31, 2014