Skin Cancer And The Risk Of Other Cancers

Last week I wrote about an article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that suggested a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure might prevent some of the more common forms of skin cancer.


Another article in the same issue of the Journal was also thought provoking.  That research suggested that the diagnosis of common skin cancers—especially in young people—may be a signal of increased risk of other more serious forms of cancer elsewhere in the body.


As I mentioned last week, skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States today.  In 2008, over 1 million people will be diagnosed with either basal cell (BCC) or squamous cell skin cancers (SCC) or malignant melanoma.  Fortunately, these cancers are usually easily treated by removing them with few of them leading to more serious disease.


In the currently reported research, the investigators’ theory was that skin cancer could be a “marker” for other problems in our bodies that would increase our risk for other common cancers.  They based their theory on other research which has suggested such a relationship may exist.


The researchers collected information from about 19,000 volunteers who lived in Washington County, Maryland in 1989.  They then followed these participants from 1989 through December 2005.  They determined who developed cancer during that time period, looking to see if there was a relationship between diagnosed skin cancers and the occurrence of cancers elsewhere in the body.


After adjusting for several factors, the researchers found that the risk of developing another cancer was about 2 times greater for those who had a skin cancer as opposed to those who did not develop skin cancer.


What was more interesting was that when looking at the relationship between age and the time the skin cancer was diagnosed, those who were younger at the time of skin cancer had an even greater risk of having another cancer found as compared to those who had their skin cancer diagnosed at a later age (the risk was increased risk 2.61 times in the 25-44 year old age group compared to 1.89 times greater in people ages 60 and older).


The researchers did not find that any particular “other cancer” was more common.


As one might expect—given the association with sun exposure and sunburns and all forms of skin cancer—there was a marked increase of melanoma in those people diagnosed with the less aggressive squamous and basal cell skin cancers.  But even removing melanoma patients from the analysis, the increased risk held up for other forms of cancer as well.


How do you explain this finding, especially the significant increased risk of other cancers if you have a squamous or basal cell skin cancer diagnosed at a younger age?


The authors think it may reflect something to do with inherited mechanisms that affect many cells in our bodies leading to an increased risk of cancer.  That would mean that these skin cancers are essentially a visible “marker” of that inherited factor or factors, which remain to be defined. 


They also point out that this increased risk may apply to only certain but not all cancers.


What does this mean for you?


Maybe this article will help persuade some of the younger people who are so enamored with tanning and tanning beds to reconsider their love affair with this cancer-causing behavior.  Younger people are particularly affected by the reported relationship between skin cancer and other cancers.


My concern is that with the increased use of tanning beds—which are known to increase the risk of skin cancer and are considered to be a cause of cancer by the World Health Organization—there will be more young people who fall into that category.


It could be that if you are someone that is diagnosed with a “routine” skin cancer you need to be alert to an increased risk of cancer elsewhere in your body. 


That doesn’t mean you should panic. 


I wouldn’t use this report as an excuse to crawl into your cave and watch television all day.  But I would urge you to seek the sun sensibly, and if you are outdoors during peak sun hours, then by all means engage in sun-safe behavior, as summed up in the phrase “Slip, Slop, Slap!” (Slip on a shirt, slop on the sunscreen, and slap on a hat—and while you’re at it, use ultraviolet-protective sunglasses.)


You should also be prudent, and engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors and make healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising, losing weight, not smoking and getting cancer screenings as recommended.


When you think about it, those suggestions are good advice for everyone.



J. Leonard Lichtenfeld's Biography

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP: Dr. Lichtenfeld currently serves as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society in the Society's Office of the Chief Medical Officer located at the Society's Corporate Center in Atlanta. Dr. Lichtenfeld joined the Society in 2001 as a medical editor, and in 2002 assumed responsibility for managing the Society's then newly created Cancer Control Science Department which included the prevention and early detection of cancer, emerging cancer science and trends, health equity, quality of life for cancer patients, the science of cancer communications and the role of nutrition and physical activity in cancer prevention and cancer care.  In 2014, Dr. Lichtenfeld assumed his current role in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer where he provides extensive support to a number of Society colleagues and activities. As a result of his over four decades of experience in cancer care, Dr. Lichtenfeld is frequently quoted in the print and electronic media regarding the Society's positions on a number of important issues related to cancer. He has testified regularly in legislative and regulatory hearings, and participated on numerous panels regarding cancer care, research, advocacy and related topics. He has served on a number of advisory committees and boards for organizations that collaborate with the Society to reduce the burden of cancer nationally and worldwide. He is well known for his blog ( which first appeared in 2005 and which continues to address many topics related to cancer research and treatment. A board certified medical oncologist and internist who was a practicing physician for over 19 years, Dr. Lichtenfeld has long been engaged in health care policy on a local, state, and national level.  He is active in several state and national medical organizations and has a long-standing interest in professional legislative and regulatory issues related to health care including physician payment, medical care delivery systems, and health information technology. Dr. Lichtenfeld is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical College (now Drexel University College of Medicine) in Philadelphia.  His postgraduate training was at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute in Baltimore. He is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national honor medical society.  Dr. Lichtenfeld has received several awards in recognition of his efforts on behalf of his colleagues and his professional activities.  He has been designated a Master of the American College of Physicians in acknowledgement of his contributions to internal medicine.  Dr. Lichtenfeld is married, and resides in Atlanta and Thomasville, Georgia.

2 thoughts on “Skin Cancer And The Risk Of Other Cancers

  1. Thanks for addressing this, Len. My mother had a pre-cancerous spot on her nose removed 5 years before her breast cancer diagnosis. Maybe there’s no correlation but it certainly makes one take notice. I’ve heard repeatedly that when discussing sun safety with young people, they are much more influenced by the fear of wrinkles than they are increased cancer risk. (!)

  2. I was diagnosed with skin cancer in my mid-seventies. I've had seven, and another is scheduled, cancers removed. Two or them were melanomas and were treated by a specialists. I'm assuming I'll have a cancer removed every month for the rest of my life. Because I'm on Medicare Medicade I'm sure my dermatologist spaces my procedures in order to make more money.

    I have a family history of cancer. My father died at 46 of lung cancer–smoked 2 to 3 packs a day. My mother died at 71 of numerous cancers. She had a breast removed about ten years before her death. She also smoked up to the day of her death. My brother died at 76 of pancreatic cancer last November. He smoked in his youth and had skin cancers several years before his death.

    I expect to die of cancer, but this article has helped me understand the statistical relationship between skin and other cancers. I'm 78 and have never smoked and spent my career in academia where there are limited amount of exposure to dangerous chemicals. My last sun burn was on the 4th of July 1955 although I wasn't especially cautious about the sun until I became almost bald.

    Thanks for the article.

Leave a Reply to Lisle Mitchell Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *