New England got a welcome post-Christmas present this week: A new study showed that we’re the only region in the country where most states saw a drop in melanoma cases and deaths in the past decade. But Maine was the only New England state where melanoma incidence and death rates rose during this same period. It’s time to shine a light on how we can more effectively fight this deadly disease.

Published Wednesday in JAMA Dermatology, the findings are remarkable. Deaths from melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer, fell in every New England state but Maine and Rhode Island between 2003 and 2013. Maine was the only state that saw increased incidence rates in 2013 compared to 2003.

Though it’s easy to assume that the risk of melanoma is highest where it’s sunniest, the truth is that New Englanders have some of the highest rates in the country. For one thing, a lot of white people live here, and the paler you are, the greater your susceptibility to melanoma (though people of color are by no means immune).

And because the weather here is often cold and cloudy, we mistakenly assume that we don’t have to apply sunscreen, even though UV rays can still get through cloud cover, or take other steps to lessen our exposure, like wearing sunglasses and broad-brimmed hats.

The study attributes the regionwide decline in melanoma incidence and death rates to strong skin cancer prevention programs. Singled out for praise was the Melanoma Foundation of New England’s Practice Safe Skin initiative. They became more active over the period assessed in the study and funded sunscreen dispensers in public and recreational areas around Boston in 2015. (The program was expanded this year to include sites in 11 other states, including Maine.)

But as the Maine statistics show, awareness efforts haven’t reached everybody, the foundation’s Meghan Rothschild told Maine Public Radio: those who don’t know how common melanoma is, that they’re at risk for it and that there are easy ways to prevent it. And although skin cancer is curable if caught early enough, people aren’t being screened for it when they visit their primary care doctors, she noted.

How can Maine combat melanoma? We could reinstate the locally based Healthy Maine Partnerships, which worked to prevent obesity and smoking and promote healthy eating. We could shore up our troubled state public health infrastructure. We could expand Medicaid eligibility so that more Mainers can afford primary care. Given the results of this study, it’s clear that the one thing we can’t afford to do is nothing.


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