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Skin cancer is something everyone should be aware of. Even though it is the most common type of cancer in the United States, constituting one in every three cases, skin cancer isn’t high on the list in most people’s minds. It’s true that death rates are low for this cancer, but non-lethal cancers must still be treated, and treatment always comes at a cost. Before examining their true costs, let’s look at the two major types of skin cancer and their key differences.
Melanoma is the most aggressive type of skin cancer, and the most dangerous. This type of cancer starts with melanocytes, the skin cells responsible for making skin pigment, or melanin. When the DNA in these cells is damaged, resulting in genetic mutations, melanocytes multiply rapidly and become tumors. People with more than 50 moles are at much higher risk for melanoma, and the first sign is a growing or changing mole.
Non-melanoma skin cancer
The two most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, and together they make up the non-melanoma skin cancer subtype. Squamous and basal cells together make up the majority of outer skin cells. These two types of cancer result from DNA damage like melanoma, but they are much less likely to spread and appear as sores, scaly warts or lesions rather than moles.
Skin cancer demographics, incidence and mortality
One out of every five Americans will be diagnosed with some type of skin cancer in their lives, and 1 in 50 will develop melanoma. Before age 45, women are more likely than men to get melanoma, but by age 60 it is more common in men. At age 80, men are three times more likely than women to develop melanoma. Skin cancer is the most common in non-Hispanic whites, but minorities are more likely to die from skin cancer.
The most recent U.S. incidence estimate for non-melanoma skin cancer, in 2006, was about 3.5 million, but because some people will have multiple incidences, the total number of people affected was just over 2.1 million. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 76,100 new cases of melanoma in 2014.
One way to measure the cost of a disease is in terms of lives. The ACS estimates that melanoma is expected to take 9,710 lives in the U.S. this year, which is about one death every 54 minutes. This includes both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer, though melanoma deaths make up about 75% of skin cancer fatalities.
Cost of treatment for skin cancer
Because skin cancer rarely involves costly drugs, it is the easiest and cheapest cancer to treat. In most cases, the skin lesion is cut from the skin in a minor procedure. When performed in a physician’s office, excisions usually cost less than $1,000 per lesion, but if the lesion is not treated in time and surgery is required, hospital visits can cost thousands.
On a national level, the cost of treating skin cancers is in the billions of dollars. The total amount spent on treating melanoma in the U.S. in 2004 was $1.5 billion, and the amount spent on non-melanoma skin cancer was $2 billion. A more recent estimate of national treatment costs put melanoma costs at $2.36 billion alone, so the true current cost of skin cancer is likely between $5 billion and $6 billion.
Reduce your risk of skin cancer
The best way to treat skin cancer is by avoiding risks in the first place. Some risks, such as genetic makeup and ethnicity, are unavoidable, but there are many things you do to ensure you’re not one of the millions diagnosed. Since the chief cause of DNA damage in the skin is exposure to ultraviolet rays, as in direct sunshine or tanning beds, preventive steps are easy.
For starters, skip the tanning beds and wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more when out in the sun, and wear hats and protective clothing whenever possible. If you stay in the sun for extended periods, sweat or get wet, be sure to periodically reapply sunscreen. Even when you don’t plan to spend the day outside, sunscreen should be used every day, even at a lower SPF. Finally, make sure your sunscreen protects against both UV-A and UV-B rays before buying.
Sunscreen will help reduce your risk, but there’s no way to ensure you’ll never get skin cancer. However, skin cancer has a 91% survival rate, and your best chance for treatment is early detection. Skin cancer can occur anywhere on your body, so know your skin and do a self-check once per month. Keep an eye out for any new or changing moles, and any new pink or red lesions, and schedule an appointment with your doctor if you find anything questionable.
Hat and sunglasses image via Shutterstock.