N.L. experiencing alarming spike in melanoma cases, says dermatologist

Wayne Gulliver used to see a few cases of melanoma each year. This year, he’s already seen seven.

The spike in cases didn’t happen overnight. Gulliver said Eastern Health had 13 cases in 2007 and more than 200 cases in 2019.

“It tells me that we are having greater numbers of melanomas and that more people are going to be at risk of having melanomas that spread beyond the skin,” Gulliver told CBC’s On The Go.

Melanoma is a cancer that starts in the cells that make skin pigment and can become more dangerous as it spreads. It commonly looks like a mole or small lesion.

Some of my colleagues said they’ve seen 50 melanomas last year, which is what we should be seeing for the whole province, not just one physician.– Dr. Wayne Gulliver

Nationwide, melanoma rates for men have been rising at a rate of about two per cent per year since the 1990s, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Gulliver — the first Canadian to win the prestigious Albert Neisser Lectureship for research and clinical contributions to dermatology — said the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

He said he is alarmed, and wants people to know what he’s seen.

Stats are wrong, doctor says

The Canadian Cancer Society projected there would be 55 new cases of melanomas in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2019.

Gulliver is part of a provincial study that aims to find the true numbers. He said when they probed all dermatologists in the province, they found 403 cases in 2019.

Gulliver says the instances of melanomas are much higher than expected. (The Canadian Press)

Some of those could have been melanomas removed for a second time, Gulliver said, but even a generous estimate still puts the true rate way ahead of the projection.

“Every week I’m seeing someone that I’m suspicious of a melanoma,” he said. “Some of my colleagues said they’ve seen 50 melanomas last year, which is what we should be seeing for the whole province, not just one physician.”

Gulliver said one of the biggest reasons for the spike in skin cancer in a province with little sunshine is the number of snowbirds heading south, and the number of times people vacation each year.

Most seniors were born in a time when sunscreen wasn’t widely used, he said, and they do not adequately care for their skin.

Melanoma is on the rise, and Gulliver says it’s largely because of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians heading south multiple times a year. (Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

Gulliver noted tanning beds have boosted cancer rates, with studies suggesting tanning beds can increase a person’s risk of melanoma by 75 per cent.

“All of those things together have resulted in huge increases in the numbers of melanoma,” Gulliver said.

The vast majority of melanomas are not fatal, if caught early. Gulliver said he’s been catching a shocking amount lately — seven since the beginning of January.

He has advice for people who use vitamin D as a reason for seeking out excess sun exposure.

“Support local businesses,” he said. “Eat seal, eat codfish, eat cod livers. All these things contain tremendous amounts of vitamin D and you won’t go vitamin D deficient.”

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