Summit County has highest skin cancer rates in Utah
Utahns typically boast an extremely active lifestyle, with constant exposure to the outdoors through hiking, biking and other recreational sports. However, that lifestyle comes with a potentially deadly consequence, particularly in Summit County.
The county has the highest rates of melanoma in the state, according to officials with the Summit County Health Department. Melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer that can develop anywhere on the body. The two types are malignant (or cancerous) and benign.
Alyssa Mitchell, health educator with the Health Department, said melanoma rates are high throughout the state. She said Utah and Vermont typically top the list for the highest rates in the country.
Mitchell attributed the number of cases in the state to the active lifestyles people have and the amount of time they spend outdoors, as well as the elevation.
“People are very active here and there are a lot of people who enjoy all of these activities that are outdoors,” she said. “We are also higher in elevation, and we are generally more exposed to UV (ultraviolet) rays because there is less ozone and less air potentially blocking the rays.”
The number of cases that are reported in the state each year has gradually increased since the early 2000s, far surpassing the rates in the rest of the country, according to the Utah Department of Health. Rates in Summit County are in some instances nearly double that of other health districts.
Men ages 65 and older are at the highest risk of developing melanoma, according to the Utah Department of Health. Some of the factors that contribute to an increased risk are a history of sunburns and lifetime sun exposure, even when sunburns don’t occur. People who live in higher elevations, warmer climates and areas where sunlight can be reflected by water, snow and ice are also more susceptible.
While people often apply sunscreen, Mitchell said, studies have shown they are not as diligent in reapplying it after several hours of exposure. She recommends people wear protective clothing and use sunscreen that boasts an SPF of at least 30, reapplying it every two hours — or sooner if swimming.
“Sunscreen needs to be worn year round because you can even get sunburned when you are skiing in the wintertime,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize that not only are you getting the rays from the sun, but if you are on the snow or near a lake or river the light is reflecting off of you and you are almost getting double exposure.”
Mitchell also acknowledged that some people are hesitant to wear sunscreen because of the chemicals that are used in various products. She suggested the website of the Environmental Working Group as a place where people can go to find a safe sunscreen. Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting environmental and personal health.
“A lot of people have concerns about the brand that they use and that site is great for helping people search their sunscreen and find out how safe they are,” she said.
Melanoma can first appear as freckles, moles or spots on the skin, Mitchell said. If those marks begin to change shape or colors, she suggests vising a doctor right away. Anyone who spends time outside can be susceptible to sun damage that can lead to melanoma, Mitchell said. She admitted even she sometimes forgets to reapply her sunscreen.
“I went snowmobiling years ago for the first time with my husband and my in-laws, and I didn’t think to put sunscreen on,” she said. “I had the most painful sunburn. But, what’s funny about my sunburn is that I was in the skin cancer prevention program so I should have known better.”
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