In 2002, fresh out of college, Jake Gibb moved from the small town of Bountiful, Utah to Huntington Beach, California to pursue beach volleyball.
Months later he was diagnosed with melanoma, the most fatal type of skin cancer. He was 26 years old.
“I had this mole on my shoulder that was bothering me,” Gibb said. “I wasn’t worried about it and it didn’t look suspicious, but it kept rubbing against my seatbelt when I was driving so I had it looked at.”
The mole was removed and biopsied. When the sample came back positive for malignant melanoma, Gibb had surgery to remove a larger section around his shoulder. He has been under surveillance ever since.
“When I was a kid in the eighties and nineties, I’d lie out and sunbathe with baby oil on,” Gibb said. “We all did it. We’d call it our ‘base burn.’ We were clueless.”
Beach volleyball players can’t avoid the sun, but Gibb was able to return to the sport with a diligent sun protection regimen of long sleeves, hats and sunscreen. He represented the United States in the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, and he plans on competing in the next three Summer Olympics.
Gibb’s story shows the most important facts about skin cancer-it is on the rise in the United States and it is treatable if caught early.
“The doctors said my melanoma was most likely from burns or sun exposure when I was young,” said Gibb. “But my experience has made a lot of players around me more aware of skin cancer. They know what I went through and they are a lot more conscious of protection now.”
A RISING TREND
Skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer in the United States. Over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined. And one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is also on the rise.
The American Cancer Society reported 76,690 new cases of melanoma in the United States in 2013. Eleven percent of those cases were in California, where melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in white residents. Los Angeles County sees about 1,300 new cases of melanoma each year.
The American Cancer Society estimates that almost 1,000 California residents will die of melanoma in 2014.
The most startling skin cancer data is the growing incidence of melanoma in young people. In the past 40 years, melanoma in people aged 18 to 39 has grown by 800 percent among women and 400 percent among men.
It is the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 25 to 30 and is second only to breast cancer in women ages 30 to 34.
There is little confusion about the cause of skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, almost all cases are attributed to ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, and just one blistering sunburn can double a person’s risk of developing melanoma. Just one indoor tanning session increases a person’s chances of developing melanoma by 20 percent, and each additional session during the same year raises that risk another two percent.
Yet, while the threat of lung cancer has helped steer people away from cigarettes, almost no progress has been shown in the risky behaviors that lead to skin cancer. Incidence of sunburn and indoor tanning have remained the same for over a decade.
“I don’t know that we’re making any headway,” said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the American Cancer Society’s deputy chief medical officer. “People are still using tanning beds and still letting themselves burn in the sun.”
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