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Note: Separate PDQ summaries on Skin Cancer Prevention, Skin Cancer Treatment, Genetics of Skin Cancer, 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.
The evidence is inadequate to determine whether visual examination of the skin in asymptomatic individuals leads to a reduction in mortality from melanomatous skin cancer. Further, in asymptomatic populations, the effect of visual skin examination on mortality from nonmelanomatous skin cancers is unknown.
Magnitude of Effect: Unknown.
Based on fair, though unquantified evidence, visual examination of the skin in asymptomatic individuals may lead to adverse consequences. These include complications of diagnostic or treatment interventions (such as poor cosmetic or functional outcomes) and the psychological effects of being labeled with a potentially fatal disease. Other harmful consequences are 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.
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 2012 was about 3,000,000.[4,5] That number would exceed all other cases of cancer estimated by the American Cancer Society for that year, which was about 1.6 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 2017, it is estimated that 87,110 individuals in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma and approximately 9,730 will die of it. The incidence of melanoma has been increasing for at least 30 years. Among adults aged 50 years and older, the incidence rate has increased by 2% to 5% per year, however, data from 2004 to 2013 indicate that rates stabilized among individuals younger than 50 years. From 2005 to 2014, mortality rates stabilized among individuals 50 years and older and declined by 2.6% per year in individuals younger than 50 years.
A study of skin biopsy rates in relation to melanoma incidence rates obtained from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER) 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. Between 1998 and 2007, a 2.5% relative yearly incidence increase in melanoma among children and adolescents was observed in SEER databases. During that time, the average annual incidence in this group was exceptionally low (5.4 per 1 million), which may have resulted in spurious trends. Nevertheless, similar trends have been seen in Sweden. In the U.S. study of pediatric melanoma, nearly one-half of the patients had local disease (22% of patients had in situ disease and 25% of patients had superficial spreading), and nearly one-half of the patients had disease with a thickness of less than one millimeter. Given that mortality from pediatric melanoma had been fairly stable during those years, it is likely that the increase in incidence could be explained, at least in part, by overdiagnosis.
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.[10,11,12] 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.[13,14]
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.[17,18] 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.[17,18]
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. An updated review published in 2016 found limited evidence that skin cancer screening reduces melanoma mortality.[22,23]
No randomized trials evaluating the efficacy of skin cancer screening on mortality have been completed. A population-based trial (using cluster randomization) to determine the effect of skin cancer screening on melanoma mortality was initiated in Queensland, Australia, but lost its funding after the initial pilot phase, and no health outcomes were ever reported.
The highest level of direct evidence available is an ecologic study comparing melanoma mortality rates across different regions of northern Germany (the SCREEN study). One region that conducted a population-based skin cancer awareness campaign, clinician education and training, and one-time clinical visual screening exams was compared with four nearby regions that did not have similar interventions available.[25,26] The two-stage skin cancer screening program began with a total-body visual examination of the skin by a general practitioner; if skin cancer was suspected, the patient was re-examined by a dermatologist. Nineteen percent of all those eligible were screened. The melanoma mortality rates were decreased in the years after the screening program in the screened region (1.7 per 100,000 in 1998-1999 to 0.9 per 100,000 in 2008-2009, or about one fewer melanoma death per 100,000 screened participants), whereas the melanoma mortality rates either stayed the same or increased in the comparison regions. This study has important methodological limitations such as the lack of randomization, lack of an internal control group, and lack of individual-level data to assess outcomes, as well as a low participation rate (19%) and high loss to follow-up rate (37%). Further, an independent analysis of the SCREEN study population found that the observed modest mortality reduction did not persist with longer-term follow-up; after 5 additional years, death rates from melanoma returned to baseline rates observed before the screening intervention was initiated.
Evidence of Harms Associated With Screening
Harms have not been well studied or reported in quantitative terms, but the potential for adverse consequences from skin cancer screening exists. In the SCREEN study, 4.4% of all screened participants underwent a skin excision for a suspicious lesion, but the majority of biopsies did not result in a cancer diagnosis. The detection rate was especially affected by age. One case of melanoma was detected per 28 excisions overall (for both men and women), while 52 skin excisions were required to detect one melanoma in men aged 20 to 34 years.
Visual examination of the skin in asymptomatic individuals may lead to cosmetic or functional complications of diagnostic or treatment interventions and the psychological effects of being labeled with a potentially fatal disease, although robust data on the frequency of such events are lacking. Other harmful consequences are 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
Added American Cancer Society as reference 5.
Updated statistics with estimated new cases and deaths for 2017. Also revised text to state that among adults aged 50 years and older, the incidence rate has increased by 2% to 5% per year, however, data from 2004 to 2013 indicate that rates stabilized among individuals younger than 50 years; from 2005 to 2014, mortality rates stabilized among individuals 50 years and older and declined by 2.6% per year in individuals younger than 50 years.
Added Lott et al. as reference 18.
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Purpose of This Summary
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.
Reviewers and Updates
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Levels of Evidence
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The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Screening and Prevention Editorial Board. PDQ Skin Cancer Screening. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/skin/hp/skin-screening-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389300]
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Last Revised: 2017-03-10
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Last modified on: 8 September 2017