Owing to the Advent of New Treatments, Melanoma Death Rates Drop

March 19, 2020

The report is the first to highlight the role of new drugs in helping Americans survive melanoma.

Melanoma is killing the fewest Americans in decades, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.

Death rates for metastatic melanoma among white Americans climbed 7.5 percent between 1986 and 2013, but then dropped by nearly 18 percent over the next three years, the researchers report.

The authors say the size of the declines outstrip comparable decreases in cancers of the prostate, breast, and lung and note that the unrivaled drop in melanoma deaths coincided with the introduction of 10 new therapies for the skin cancer.

“Our findings show how quickly patients and physicians accepted these new drugs because they profoundly reduce deaths from melanoma,” says co-senior study author David Polsky, MD, PhD. “These therapies are now considered the backbone of how we treat this cancer,” says Dr. Polsky, the Alfred W. Kopf, M.D. Professor of Dermatologic Oncology at NYU Langone Health and its Perlmutter Cancer Center.

The report is the first to highlight the role of these new drugs in helping Americans survive melanoma, says Dr. Polsky, who is also a professor in the Department of Pathology at NYU Langone.

For the study, researchers analyzed new cases and deaths from melanoma collected by the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These numbers spanned from 1986 to 2016 and involved nearly a million Americans. Dr. Polsky notes that the steep drop in deaths cannot be readily explained by better detection methods because death rates did not drop steadily over time, but sharply. In addition, many health care groups have been pushing for early detection exams since the 1980s, so the timing of these declines matches up better with the introduction of the new therapies.

Nevertheless, the researchers caution that early detection is still important, allowing for less toxic forms of treatment and lowered health care costs. They emphasized that prevention, avoiding excessive UV light exposure, and promptly seeking medical care when there is a change in the skin’s appearance, are crucial to reducing the risk of developing metastatic melanoma.

Dr. Polsky says future studies should investigate socioeconomic factors that may affect access to the newer therapies, as well as the effect of these treatments on other ethnic groups.

Funding for the study was provided by NYU Langone, where other investigators involved in the study are Jennifer A. Stein, MD, PhD; and Jeffrey Weber, MD, PhD. Alan C. Geller, MPH, RN, at Harvard University in Boston is the other senior co-investigator of the study. Juliana Berk-Krauss, MD, at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, is the study lead investigator.

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