Can Children Get Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is much more common in adults, but children and teens can be diagnosed with it. In adults, most skin cancers are non-melanoma (including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and actinic keratoses), but skin cancer in children is nearly always melanoma. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, and early detection is critical, as it is highly treatable when found early.1

Children’s skin cancer incidence rates

While skin cancer is rare in children, the incidence increases as children move into teen years. The increase in incidence among teenagers may be related to the use of tanning beds and sunbathing in older children. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light is one of the major factors that increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer.1,2
An analysis of the national cancer database that looked at skin cancer data of patients aged 1 to 19 years from 1985 to 2003 found that 96.3% had melanoma on the skin (cutaneous melanoma). Among the children with melanoma aged 1 to 19 years:

  • 3.8% were 1 to 4 years old
  • 5.7% were 5 to 9 years old
  • 17.3% were 10 to 14 years old
  • 73% were 15 to 19 years old1

Melanoma was more common in girls and patients older than 10 years of age. Younger children with skin cancer were more likely to be non-white and male.1

Skin cancer in children: what to look for

In adults, melanomas tend to appear as darker spots, but in children, melanomas are frequently whitish, yellowish, or red. As with adults, any changes on the skin, especially changes to moles, should be brought to the attention of a doctor. The general recommendations of the ABCDE’S of what to look for in skin checks apply to children and adults:

  • A – Asymmetrical shape, like moles that are irregular or not symmetrical
  • B – Border, moles that have an unclear or unusual border
  • C – Color, especially the presence of more than one color in a mole
  • D – Diameter, moles that are larger than 6 mm (about the size of a pencil eraser)
  • E – Evolution, which involves any changes to a mole over time3

Risk factors for skin cancer in children

Children may be at greater risk for skin cancer if they have any of the following characteristics:

  • Fair skin
  • Large or many small moles on the skin
  • A history of sunburns, particularly blistering sunburns
  • A family history of unusual moles or skin cancer2

Any child who is at high risk for skin cancer should get annual check-ups by a pediatric dermatologist, a specialist who has specific training in skin diseases in children.2

Treatment of skin cancer in children

Most children with melanoma will have surgery to remove the cancer. For many patients, surgery is the only treatment. Others may need additional treatment, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or biologic therapy. Fortunately, most skin cancers are very treatable when caught in their early stages.1,2

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