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High skin cancer rates in Idaho, Wash. prompt warnings

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE - Idaho has the highest death rate from melanoma in the nation, and both Washington and Idaho are among the top 10 states for incidence of the deadly skin cancer, so health officials are urging folks to slap on the sunscreen and think about hats and shade as the sunny holiday weekend kicks off.

“The death and diagnosis rates are very telling,” said Patti Moran, manager of Idaho’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program for the state Department of Health and Welfare. “We’re urging people to remember to protect their skin every time they go outside, to prevent skin cancer.”

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire highlighted the problem in 2008 when she declared Washington a “SunWise” state, launching an EPA-sponsored program to educate kids in schools about how to be “sun-safe.”

Gregoire noted at the time that while parts of Washington are known for rain, “it is important for families across the state to understand the hidden dangers of UV rays and use precaution.”

Moran said, “We do get cloudy, especially in northern Idaho, and people don’t always remember to take protective action, not realizing that you can still get burned and have a lot of sun-damaging exposure on cloudy days.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s analysis of data from 2001 to 2005 showed Washington ranked fifth in the nation for melanoma incidence, and Idaho ranked seventh. For melanoma deaths, Washington ranked 16th, but Idaho ranked first.

Across the nation, melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, occurs most in the Pacific Northwest states and the Atlantic Northeast states.

Moran said screening and early detection are crucial, including self-exams to find changes in the skin and having those examined by a health professional. Idaho’s high death rate shows a need for more early detection. “If you can catch it early before it has spread, then the survival rate is like 95 percent,” she said.

About one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime, according to the CDC. In Idaho, about 40 people a year die of melanoma; in Washington, it’s nearly 220 people.