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Note: Separate PDQ summaries on Skin Cancer Prevention, Skin Cancer Treatment, and Levels of Evidence for Cancer Screening and Prevention Studies are also available.
The only widely proposed screening procedure for skin cancer is visual examination of the skin, including both self-examination and clinical examination.
In asymptomatic populations, the effect of visual skin examination on mortality from nonmelanomatous skin cancers is unknown. Further, the evidence is inadequate to determine whether visual examination of the skin in asymptomatic individuals would lead to a reduction in mortality from melanomatous skin cancer.
Magnitude of Effect: Not applicable (N/A).
Based on fair though unquantified evidence, visual examination of the skin in asymptomatic individuals may lead to unavoidable increases in harmful consequences. These include complications of diagnostic or treatment interventions (including extensive surgery) and the psychological effects of being labeled with a potentially fatal disease. Another harmful consequence is overdiagnosis leading to the detection of biologically benign disease that would otherwise go undetected, and the possibility of misdiagnosis of a benign lesion as malignant.
Magnitude of Effect: Unknown.
Incidence and mortality
There are three main types of skin cancer:
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common forms of skin cancer but have substantially better prognoses than the less common, generally more aggressive melanoma.
Nonmelanoma skin cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer in the United States. Its incidence appears to be increasing in some  but not all  areas of the United States. Overall U.S. incidence rates have likely been increasing for a number of years. At least some of this increase may be attributable to increasing skin cancer awareness and resulting increasing investigation and biopsy of skin lesions. A precise estimate of the total number and incidence rate of nonmelanoma skin cancer is not possible, because reporting to cancer registries is not required. However, based on Medicare fee-for-service data extrapolated to the U.S. population, it has been estimated that the total number of persons treated for nonmelanoma skin cancers in 2006 was about 2,152,500. That number would exceed all other cases of cancer estimated by the American Cancer Society for that year, which was about 1.4 million.
Melanoma is a reportable cancer in U.S. cancer registries, so there are more reliable estimates of incidence than is the case with nonmelanoma skin cancers. In 2012, it is estimated that 76,250 individuals in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma and approximately 9,180 will die of it. The incidence of melanoma has been increasing for at least 30 years. From 2004 to 2008, melanoma mortality rates decreased in whites younger than 50 years by 2.9% per year in men and by 2.3 % per year in women. However, the rates have been increasing by 1.0% per year in white men aged 50 years and older, and have been stable in white women aged 50 years and older during this same time period.
A study of skin biopsy rates in relation to melanoma incidence rates obtained from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program of the National Cancer Institute indicated that much of the observed increase in incidence between 1986 and 2001 was confined to local disease and was most likely caused by overdiagnosis as a result of increased skin biopsy rates during this period.
Epidemiologic evidence suggests that exposure to UV radiation and the sensitivity of an individual's skin to UV radiation are risk factors for skin cancer, although the type of exposure (high-intensity and short-duration vs. chronic exposure) and pattern of exposure (continuous vs. intermittent) may differ among the three main types of skin cancer.[7,8,9] In addition, the immune system may play a role in pathogenesis of skin cancers. Organ-transplant recipients receiving immunosuppressive drugs are at elevated risk of skin cancers, particularly squamous cell cancers (SCC). Arsenic exposure also increases the risk of cutaneous SCC.[10,11]
The incidence of melanoma rises rapidly in Caucasians after age 20 years. Fair-skinned individuals exposed to the sun are at higher risk. Individuals with certain types of pigmented lesions (dysplastic or atypical nevi), with several large nondysplastic nevi, with many small nevi, or with moderate freckling have a twofold to threefold increased risk of developing melanoma. Individuals with familial dysplastic nevus syndrome or with several dysplastic or atypical nevi are at high (>fivefold) risk of developing melanoma.
Accuracy of Making a Clinical Diagnosis of Melanoma
A systematic review of 32 studies that compared the accuracy of dermatologists and primary care physicians in making a clinical diagnosis of melanoma concluded that there was no statistically significant difference in accuracy. However, the results were inconclusive, owing to small sample sizes and study design weaknesses. In addition, differentiating between benign and malignant melanocytic tumors during histologic examination of biopsy specimens has been shown to be inconsistent even in the hands of experienced dermatopathologists. This fact undermines results of studies examining screening effectiveness and also may undermine the effectiveness of any screening intervention. Furthermore, this suggests that requesting a second opinion regarding the pathology of biopsy specimens may be important.
Evidence of Benefit Associated With Screening
More than 90% of melanomas that arise in the skin can be recognized with the naked eye. Very often there is a prolonged horizontal growth phase during which time the tumor expands centrifugally beneath the epidermis but does not invade the underlying dermis. This horizontal growth phase may provide lead time for early detection. Melanoma is more easily cured if treated before the onset of the vertical growth phase with its metastatic potential.
The probability of tumor recurrence within 10 years after curative resection is less than 10% with tumors less than 1.4 mm in thickness. For patients with tumors less than 0.76 mm in thickness, the likelihood of recurrence is less than 1% in 10 years.
A systematic review of skin cancer screening examined evidence available through mid-2005 and concluded that direct evidence of improved health outcomes associated with skin cancer screening is lacking.
However, this does not mean that skin cancers (whether melanoma or nonmelanoma) are unimportant or can be neglected without adverse consequences. When neglected, skin cancers can be disfiguring and/or cause death. Skin cancers are easily detected clinically and are often cured by excisional biopsy alone.
Various observational studies exploring the possibility that melanoma screening may be effective have been reported. An educational campaign in western Scotland, promoting awareness of the signs of suspicious skin lesions and encouraging early self-referral, showed a decrease in mortality rates associated with the campaign. A case-control study of 650 cases (and 549 controls) diagnosed in Connecticut showed that skin self-examination was associated with reduced melanoma incidence. The authors estimated that monthly skin self-examination might decrease disease-specific mortality by 63%, but the observed effects may have been the result of study biases, which frequently affect case-control study designs.
A population-based trial using cluster randomization to determine the effect of skin screening on melanoma mortality was initiated in Queensland, Australia. Intervention communities were randomly assigned to receive a 3-year program targeting adults older than age 30 years. The program consisted of:
Matched control communities received usual care. Originally designed to include 44 matched communities followed for 15 years, the trial lost its funding after its initial pilot phase in 18 communities (population 63,035). Although the pilot phase established feasibility of community-based programs, no health outcomes were reported. In the study, 16,383 whole-body skin examinations were reported in the intervention communities, resulting in a referral rate of 14.1% (18.2% for people older than age 50 years). Thirty-three melanomas were diagnosed, 13 of which were in situ. The estimated specificity for melanoma was 86.1%, with a positive predictive value (PPV) of 2.5%. The PPVs for squamous cell and for basal cell cancers were 7.2% and 19.3%, respectively. Negative screens were not followed up, and the sensitivity of skin examination was not reported.
Evidence of Harm Associated With Screening
Harms have not been well studied or reported in quantitative terms. However, visual examination of the skin in asymptomatic individuals may lead to unavoidable adverse consequences. These include complications of diagnostic or treatment interventions (including extensive surgery) and the psychological effects of being labeled with a potentially fatal disease. Another harmful consequence is overdiagnosis leading to the detection of biologically benign disease that would otherwise go undetected, and the possibility of misdiagnosis of a benign lesion as malignant. (Refer to the Accuracy of Making a Clinical Diagnosis of Melanoma section of this summary for more information.)
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Description of the Evidence
Updated statistics with estimated new cases and deaths for 2012 (cited American Cancer Society as reference 5).
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This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about skin cancer screening. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
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Levels of Evidence
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National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Skin Cancer Screening. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/screening/skin/HealthProfessional. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
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Last Revised: 2012-01-26
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