Skin Cancer Increases the Risk of Other Types of Cancer

By Fayne Frey, MD

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According to a UK study, if you’re diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) between the ages of 45 to 59, your risk for any other type of cancer — not just another NMSC — goes up 74%. And if one is found under age 25, your risk is roughly 250%.

Understanding cancer

Cancer is a group of more than 100 different diseases that have one thing in common, an abnormal growth of cells that proliferate in an uncontrolled manner and in some cases, spread to other areas of the body. Normal cells divide in an orderly fashion and are replaced by new cells as they wear or are damaged. Cancer cells continue to divide and eventually crowd out the normal cells destroying body tissues and organs.

Cancer is caused by a change in our genes that control cell function, especially how they grow and divide. These changes can be inherited from our parents or can arise during a person’s lifetime due to damage from environmental exposures like chemicals from tobacco smoke, ultraviolet radiation from the sun or any other external agents introduced to the body — even diet.

The most common cancer type in the United States is skin cancer. It is estimated that almost 200,000 new cases of melanoma, the most deadly of skin cancer, will be diagnosed in 2018. NMSC affects more than 3 million Americans a year. Basal cell carcinomas (BCC) and squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) account for the overwhelming majority of non-melanoma skin cancers diagnosed annually. Known risk factors for skin cancer of all types include natural and artificial ultraviolet light exposure and genetic factors, including skin that burns easily or having blond or red hair.

Studies of cancer risk factors

To determine cancer risk factors, scientists look at large groups of people and compare those who develop cancer with those who don’t. These epidemiological studies help determine a correlation between cancer risk factors or behavior but don’t necessarily determine the cause. Previous studies have suggested that developing NMSC may predispose an individual to another type of cancer.

A recent study of more than 3500 participants concluded that the risk of developing a subsequent cancer (other than a NMSC) was higher after being diagnosed with either a basal cell carcinoma or a squamous cell carcinoma compared to a control group. In addition, the risk of developing another cancer type after having had a SCC was even higher if the initial SCC diagnosis occurred before the age of 60. The chances of developing a melanoma increased 3-fold after being diagnosed with either a BCC or an SCC. In men, there was a significantly higher chance of developing prostate cancer after being diagnosed with a BCC.

Two large cohort studies involving over 150,000 men and women revealed a personal history of NMSC resulted in an increased risk of developing breast or lung cancer in women and a modestly increased risk of developing melanoma in women and men.

The Women’s Health Initiative observational study assessed whether a history of NMSC was a risk factor to developing subsequent breast cancer. More than 70,000 postmenopausal women were included in the study. Amongst these women were almost 5,500 cases of NMSC previously diagnoses at study entry. The annualized rate of breast cancer was 0.64% among the women with a history of NMSC and a 0.55% among women with no history of NMSC. Although there wasn’t a significant increase in breast cancer amongst women with a history of NMSC, there was a significant risk of developing a more advanced–stage, lymph node-positive disease among women with a positive history of NMSC.

Cancer prevention

The exact cause of this increased cancer risk is unknown although a genetic predisposition is possible. Some researchers theorize that the cellular machinery involved in DNA repair may be defective in some people, which would leave them more susceptible to any type of cancer.

Since the exact cause of cancer remains elusive, cancer prevention is still evolving. The following cancer prevention tips may be useful:

  1. Don’t use tobacco
  2. Eat a healthy diet.
  3. If you consume alcohol, do so in moderation.
  4. Maintain a healthy weight
  5. Exercise
  6. Protect yourself from the sun
  7. Get regular medical checkups

Originally published at on July 8, 2018.

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