Skin Cancers Once Considered Less Fatal Now Reported To Cause More Deaths Worldwide
Reviewed by Moriah Barboza, CFNP
Nonmelanoma skin cancer death rates found to be higher than melanoma
Medical scientists at a recent international dermatology conference reported that nonmelanoma skin cancers now top melanoma in causing deaths. The scientists based their report on international data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Nonmelanoma skin cancers include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma along with relatively rare but lethal Merkel cell carcinoma which killed music star Jimmy Buffet.
Melanoma, which originates primarily in moles gone rogue until now has been the primary concern in skin cancer because of how rapidly it can metastasize. But the researchers for this new global report suggest that because there are so many more cases of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma than melanoma, statistically they may result in more deaths.
Worldwide totals for 2020, the last year for which data is available, show here were nearly 1.2 million reported cases of nonmelanoma skin cancers across the world compared with 324,635 cases of melanoma.
“In 2020, nonmelanoma skin cancers accounted for 78% of all skin cancer cases, resulting in over 63,700 deaths. In contrast, melanoma caused an estimated 57,000 fatalities in the same year. The significantly higher incidence of nonmelanoma skin cancer has, therefore, led to a more substantial overall impact,” the report states.
Possible reasons behind the new data
Think of it this way. Even though riding a motorcycle is statistically more dangerous, automobile accidents cause many more deaths than motorcycles. Why? Because way more people drive cars than motorcycles. Melanoma is the motorcycle here. All the other nonmelanoma skin cancers are cars. Simply put, there’s just a lot more of them out there and the numbers add up.
Although the investigators for this analytical report relied on data from the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer for their comparison of the number of cases and outcomes for melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers, comprehensive data from the US was included.
In fact, data from the U.S. along with data from the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Australia received extra focus. That’s because the data reveal an especially high rate of all skin cancers among fair-skinned and elderly people in these countries.
Higher risk for all skin cancers includes people who:
- Spend unprotected time in the sun
- Have light skin and/or blue, gray or green eyes
- Have suppressed immune systems due to organ transplants or other health conditions
- Are over 50 years old possibly due to a lifetime accumulation of UV exposure
Regarding being over 50, scientists hypothesize that the fact that more people all over the world are living longer could be behind the increase in overall skin cancers as well as skin cancer deaths.
Another theory suggests that the data may be misleading because deadly Merkel cell carcinoma was grouped together with squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. Although still considered rare, Merkel cell carcinoma is on the upswing. Incidence rates of Merkel cell carcinoma increased by 95% from 2000 to 2013.
Lack of awareness of signs of skin cancer could be a factor
Another explanation and one that concerns us here at the California Skin Institute could be that people may be unaware of what signs of squamous cell, basal cell and Merkel cell carcinomas look like. If a blister, pimple, odd-shaped mole, or non-healing sore is noted it is important not to dismiss it and have the lesion evaluated by a board-certified dermatologist.
Big mistake. This can result in what was a treatable cancer morphing into a more dangerous illness possibly resulting in death.
Early detection and early intervention are important. To learn more about these skin cancers, be sure to view our web pages on skin cancer.