Nonmelanoma Skin Cancers Raise the Risk for Other Cancers

People who have had the nonmelanoma skin cancers (NMSCs) basal and squamous cell carcinoma (BCC and SCC) are approximately twice as likely as other people to develop non-skin cancers, according to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The findings are of particular concern because NMSC is the world's most common malignancy, with over a million cases diagnosed every year in the US alone. Currently, it's estimated that one in five Americans will develop NMSC at some point in their lives. About 90 percent of these cancers are associated with exposure to the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. While NMSCs have very high cure rates when caught early, they should not be taken lightly, as this study shows.

Researchers led by Anthony J. Alberg, PhD, of the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, studied demographic and health information from 19,174 patients in the Maryland-based CLUE (Give us a Clue to Cancer and Heart Disease) II study, from 1989 though 2005. Some 769 patients in the study were diagnosed with NMSC, and by the end of 2005, 181 of these patients, or about 23 percent, had developed another form of (non-skin-related, or noncutaneous) cancer. In contrast, only about 12 percent of people (2156 of 18,405) who did not have NMSC were subsequently diagnosed with a noncutaneous cancer. Researchers took variables such as cigarette smoking and skin type (susceptibility to sunburn and blistering) into account. Nonetheless, those with NMSC had about twice the risk of developing noncutaneous cancers as those who did not have NMSC. Researchers also found that the earlier the age at diagnosis of NMSC, the more likely participants were to develop noncutaneous cancers.

The full implications of this research are not yet known, but while nonmelanoma skin cancers are rarely life-threatening, they can be highly disfiguring if not caught early, and it is well known that having a history of NMSC means you are also at increased risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which claims more than 8200 lives a year in the US. If you have had an NMSC, you are at higher risk of developing not only future NMSCs and melanomas, but also other, potentially dangerous cancers. Routine screening for both skin cancers and non-skin cancers is thus advisable.