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Skin cancers rise as dermatologists decline

Brynessa Gradley's life changed just over a year ago when she scratched an itchy spot on her leg as she came out of the shower.

The 21-year-old Queen's University student, a native of West Vancouver, found a tiny mole ringed with reddened skin and decided to have it checked out at the campus clinic.

The doctor referred Ms. Gradley to a dermatologist - reluctantly because of her youth and lack of family skin-cancer history. She says she also had to push the skin specialist to order a biopsy.

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"I came back to Vancouver for the summer and received a phone call that I would need emergency surgery, without which the cancer would have spread throughout my body within a month."

Ms. Gradley was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which is expected to take 940 Canadian lives this year.

Canada's dermatologists, who met in Vancouver last week, say rates of skin cancer including melanoma are on the rise among young people just as the number of skin specialists is set to decline.

The Canadian Dermatology Association says Canadians born in the 1990s are two to three times more likely to get skin cancer in their lifetime than those born in the 1960s - one in six versus one in 20 for the older group.

The lifetime risk of melanoma for Canadian men now is one in 74, for women one in 90. By comparison, the lifetime risk for Americans in the 1930s was one in 1,500, the association says.

The association forecasts that 75,100 Canadians will be diagnosed with non-malignant skin cancer this year, and 5,000 will learn they have melanoma.

Young people aged 15 to 29, especially women, seem to be contracting melanoma at alarming rates. It accounts for 7 per cent of all new cancers found among young men and 11 per cent among young women, the association says.

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The fair-skinned Ms. Gradley says she has never been sunburned but played a lot of outdoor sports as a teen and first used tanning beds at age 13.

She said she's lucky she got in to see a dermatologist fairly quickly.

"I received a very invasive surgery," Ms. Gradley says. "I was on crutches for three months and walked with a cane afterwards."

Waiting times to see skin specialists have doubled in the past five years to about 10 weeks, says Larry Warshawski, the association's outgoing president.

Dr. Warshawski's successor as president, Yves Poulin, said his priority this year will be to lobby provincial governments to increase the limited number of residency spots for dermatologists to address the expected shortfall.

The association is also lobbying provincial governments to bar people under the age of 18 from using tanning beds.

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A survey conducted in May for the association found more than 90 per cent of Canadians can recognize what a potential melanoma looks like.

But many survey respondents were ready to ignore protective measures in their quest for a tan.

Ms. Gradley says a series of fully body scans have confirmed her cancer is in remission, but she must go for twice-yearly checkups for the rest of her life.

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