Study Finds 'Epidemic' of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer rates are on the rise, despite years of warnings about sunscreen.

March 17, 2010— -- Despite efforts to inform the public about the risk of sun exposure, the rate of non-melanoma skin cancer in the U.S. is reaching epidemic proportions, with more than 2 million people affected in 2006, researchers said.

In that year, an estimated 3.5 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer were treated, affecting 2.1 million people according to Dr. Howard Rogers of Advanced Dermatology in Norwich, Conn., and colleagues.

The finding is based on analysis of such cases among Medicare beneficiaries, where the number of procedures for non-melanoma skin cancer increased 16 percent from 2002 through 2006, Rogers and colleagues reported in the March issue of Archives of Dermatology.

The article is one of two in the journal sounding an alarm over the rising incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer -- the most common form of the disease.

Melanoma, though less common, is considered far more dangerous because it can easily spread to other parts of the body.

In the other article, Dr. Robert Stern, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston used a mathematical model to estimate the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer.

At the beginning of 2007, the model showed, about 13 million non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. had had at least one such cancer -- either basal cell or squamous cell carcinoma.

The model suggests that the prevalence of a history of skin cancer is about five times higher than either breast or prostate cancer and greater than the 31-year prevalence of all other cancers combined, Stern said.

"The prevalence of a history of skin cancer is far higher than that of any other cancer and exceeds that of all other cancers diagnosed since 1975," Stern said in the journal.

At the same time, the impact of non-melanoma skin cancer is substantial, although the cost of treatment is low compared with other malignancies, Rogers and colleagues said.

Medicare claims data in the early 1990s showed that annual treatment costs were between 5 percent and 10 percent of those for other cancers, they said. For example, the annual cost per affected patient for stomach cancer was $9,010 in 1992, compared with $431 for non-melanoma skin cancer.

However, the large number of cases of non-melanoma skin cancer made it the fifth most costly to treat overall, accounting for 4.5 percent of all Medicare cancer costs, Rogers and colleagues found.

More Money Going to Skin Cancer Treatments

All told, the number of procedures to treat skin cancer among Medicare beneficiaries rose 76.9 percent from 1992 to 2006 -- from an estimated 1.6 million procedures to about 2 million, they found.

But between 2002 and 2006, when database links permitted more detailed analysis, Rogers and colleagues found that the number of procedures for non-melanoma skin cancer per affected person increased 1.5 percent and the number of people who had at least one procedure increased by 14.3 percent.

"There is an epidemic of non-melanoma skin cancer in the United States," they concluded, adding that "educational programs emphasizing sun protection have mainly been disappointing in slowing skin cancer rates."

Rogers and colleagues urged "continued national research and programs on treatment, education and prevention" of skin cancer.