Skin cancer cases rising among teens

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Seventeen-year-old Kevin Rizzo is an aspiring filmmaker.  He's been attending the Sarasota Film Society  summer camp since he was a tween. 

"I've done comedy. Not so much drama. But I have done documentaries," he said, recalling work both behind and in front of the camera.

RELATED: Free skin care screenings in Clearwater

But last year, Kevin's creative passion was sidetracked after a haircut exposed a purple-brown mole on his scalp.

"It was bigger than an average mole that I had seen, so I thought it was kind of scary looking," his mom Megan Hussey recalled.

Megan was right; it was melanoma.  But Kevin says he didn't realize the impact.  "When they first told me I had it, I don't even remember too well. Probably was shocked or confused."

Dr. Vernon Sonda, Kevin's doctor at the Moffitt Cancer Center, chairs the Cutaneous Oncology Department and has been treating melanoma for decades.  He has noticed a trend.   

"No change has been more dramatic in my practice, in career, than the increase in the number of young people – children and adolescents -- that are getting melanoma," he stated. 

Rates in teens have been rising two percent per year

"Teenage girls seem to be an especially high rising incidence rate group and we think that it is tanning beds and sun habits; sun exposure habits," Dr. Sondak continued.

Melanomas usually are usually dark, irregular, bigger than a pencil eraser, and asymmetric -- meaning if you cover half of the mole with a piece of paper, the other half looks different.  

"Those rules frequently don't apply in children, and in general, the younger the child the less likely it will follow the rules,” warned Dr. Sondak.

That makes the diagnosis even tougher.  Pathologists have a hard time identifying them.

"Often there's an uncertainty factor and we spend a lot of time going over it under the microscope," he said.

It took two biopsies before Kevin was referred to Moffitt for confirmation.  Melanoma spread to his lymph nodes, so surgeons removed several from his neck and upper chest.

"He had drains coming out of his neck and through his chest and it was really difficult," Megan remembered.  She says losing those disease-fighting lymph nodes has made him more susceptible to infections like pneumonia.  

Kevin's now cancer-free but because he's high risk, he gets frequent checkups at his dermatologist's office and at Moffitt.  

"For a while it was a cycle -- every two weeks, I get some stitches removed, more moles removed, more stitches, more moles," Kevin said.

Sometimes after removal, they come back.

"He went for 10 months straight there wasn't a time when he didn't have stitches," Megan recalled.

But there's some good news: Pediatric melanomas usually have good outcomes.  As Kevin gets back on track fulfilling his dream, he hopes this year, he can focus on his senior year in school.  
"Next year I'm pretty excited but it's also scary because I’m going to be senior," he said after missing several weeks of his junior year.  

When asked what he looks forward to the most, Kevin replied, "Just being there, seeing my friends every day."

It’s a simple pleasure many students take for granted. 


Moffitt Cancer Center is offering free skin cancer screenings at their "Mole Patrol" Saturday, July 29, at Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach from 9 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. For more information, head to  the Moffitt Cancer Center Facebook page.