Nonmelanoma Skin Cancer Incidence Increases Dramatically

Recently released data show an alarming increase in skin cancer incidence: A study in the Archives of Dermatology reveals that more than two million people in the US develop over 3.5 million nonmelanoma skin cancers every year. This constitutes a more than 300 percent increase in skin cancer incidence since 1994, when rates were last estimated.

Nonmelanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), are the most common forms of skin cancer, and squamous cell carcinoma kills an estimated 2,500 people in the US annually. Nonmelanoma skin cancers can be disfiguring when not diagnosed and treated in a timely manner.

The study’s lead author, Howard Rogers, MD, gave The Skin Cancer Foundation further insights into the data, calculating that the 3.5 million nonmelanoma skin cancers equate to approximately 2.8 million BCCs and 700,000 SCCs annually.

These new numbers are disturbing but not completely surprising, as there has been a steady rise in the rates of both nonmelanoma and melanoma skin cancers in the past several decades. In 1994, a report in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology estimated total US incidence of BCC and SCC at just over one million cases per year. (Incidence must be estimated, because nonmelanoma skin cancers are not usually reported to cancer registries. To determine rates, researchers consult various government databases for information about skin cancer-related procedures and visits to doctors.) Since 1994, skin cancer procedures in several databases have jumped by 76.9 percent.

“The logic is that you can’t treat a skin cancer without a pathologic diagnosis of skin cancer, so the number of treatments is an excellent indicator of the number of cancers,” said study coauthor Brett Coldiron, MD, FACP, founder of The Skin Cancer Center in Cincinnati. “The number of treatments has gone up dramatically.”

Dr. Coldiron thinks the huge increase can be attributed to several factors. For example, he suspects that the number of skin cancers in 1994 was probably closer to 1.5 million. Additionally, “I think the increase is due to sun exposure, both incidental and intentional, and the growth of tanning parlors. Also, the baby boomer generation is aging, and most skin cancer patients are over 65.”