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The Trouble with Tracking Death Rates in Basal and Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Last updated: September 2022

Skin cancers — specifically nonmelanomas like basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) — are the most common types of cancer in the United States.1 And while there is agreement on the increasing numbers of people diagnosed with BCC and SCC, the exact number of people (incidence rate) is unknown.2

Increasing incidences of nonmelanoma

What does incidence mean? Incidence is how likely someone is to be diagnosed with a medical condition in a certain amount of time, often given in a year or multiple years. The incidence of non-melanoma is an important data point, especially considering that the rates of nonmelanoma seem to be increasing:6

  • It is now estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in his or her lifetime
  • Roughly 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day
  • Research indicates that BCC and SCC affect over 3 million Americans every year
  • It is thought that BCC has increased by over 145 percent, and SCC has increased by over 263 percent between 1975 and 2010
  • In addition, data predictions have suggested that these rate of cancer cases will continue to increase through 2060.7

The data divide on skin cancer deaths

Death from BCC and SCC is uncommon. When it does occur, however, it has a horrific impact on the skin cancer community and the loved ones of those who are lost. There is often a lot of variation in data reported on the number of patient deaths from these skin cancers. For example, one estimate has reported that roughly 2,000 people die each year from BCC and SCC combined.2 Yet another source reported that more than 3,000 people die each year from BCC alone.3 And recent figures suggest that more than 15,000 people die in the US from SCC each year!1 So why the discrepancy?

It is not actually known for sure how many people die from BCC or SCC each year due to the following reasons:

  • BCC and SCC are so common and often curable, statistics are estimated.4
  • Most other cancer statistics are reported and tracked by registries, but BCC and SCC are not.2
  • Many cases of cancer are not even identified,5 which makes connecting the disease to possible death from disease impossible.

Increasing our awareness

Knowing more about the incidence and mortality of BCC and SCC is important for both the prevention and treatment of disease. BCC and SCC are highly curable if detected early and treated properly.6 This knowledge is also important for the healthcare community, because not only does increasing incidence lead to increased patient suffering, but it also contributes to higher healthcare costs.

BCC and SCC: Who is at risk?

The most well-known risk for developing BCC or SCC is exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR). This can come from long-term sun exposure or artificial UV light exposure, like from tanning beds.6,7 Other risk factors include:6

  • History of frequent or severe sunburn in childhood
  • Skin that burns easily, fair skin, or blond or red hair; however, people with all skin types can develop skin cancer
  • The presence of multiple moles on the skin

Preventing BCC and SCC

The best thing a person can do to prevent a diagnosis or recurrence of BCC or SCC is to reduce exposure to UV light. This can be done by avoiding tanning beds, wearing protective clothing when outdoors, and using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunblock on exposed skin with an SPF of at least 30. Because of the increased risk associated with severe sunburn, children should especially be protected from harmful UV light exposure.6

It is also important to examine your skin regularly for changes in any existing moles, or the appearance of new ones. Seeing a dermatologist can help detect if any skin markings are warning signs for cancer.6

Prevention and detection strategies are key in reducing risk and improving outcomes for patients with BCC and SCC.7

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