As a dermatologist, whenever I ask people what they think is the most common type of cancer, they usually say breast cancer, lung cancer or prostate cancer. But in fact, skin cancer is the most common. Not only that, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined.
What’s also an astounding (and disturbing) fact is that many more men develop skin cancer than women, including melanoma, the most dangerous of the three most common types of skin cancer.
When it comes to skin cancer, men far outnumber women
In skin cancer statistics, there’s a glaring difference between the genders. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, more than half (57%) of those diagnosed with one basal cell carcinoma (BCC) are men. As the number of BCCs increases, so does the gender gap: 62% of people diagnosed with 2-5 BCCs are men. And among those with 6 or more BCCs, an alarming 80% are male, as the chart below illustrates.
GENDER GAP IN THE MOST COMMON TYPE OF SKIN CANCER
courtesy of The Skin Cancer Foundation
For more serious skin cancers, the numbers are even worse. Men account for more than half of new cases of invasive melanoma—and almost twice as many deaths.
Why the gender gap?
There’s no single answer as to why more men develop skin cancer than women, but rather, many reasons.
- It is estimated that in 2018, 55,000 new cases of invasive melanoma in the U.S. will be diagnosed in men vs. 36,000 cases in women, reports The Skin Cancer Foundation. In the same year, an estimated 9,320 people will die of melanoma in the U.S. Of those, 5,990 will be men and 3,330 will be women. Clearly, there’s more work to do in communicating to men the need for sun protection and early detection.
- Many more men than women develop melanoma after age 49, possibly the result of a lifetime of sun exposure and poor sun protection. All of this unprotected sun exposure has a cumulative effect over the years. (Before age 49, more women than men develop melanoma, probably due to women’s greater use of tanning beds.)
- Men tend not to wear sunscreen. While they don’t lie out in the sun as much as women to get tan, men are definitely less likely to take measures to protect themselves from sun damage, whether they’re fishing or playing golf or taking their shirt off for basketball.
- Men don’t get their skin checked regularly. As the saying goes, women go to the doctor, men go to the emergency room. Men simply do not go to the doctor if they can help it, which is why women are men’s best health advocates. In many instances in my practice, I’ve been able to catch potentially serious skin cancer in an early stage because a wife or girlfriend made the appointment for the male patient after seeing a suspicious-looking mole on his back.
- Men rarely examine their skin. Women are taught from a young age to examine their breasts regularly, so when they read (often in women’s magazines which are more health-oriented than men’s) that they should examine their skin regularly too, they are more likely to comply.
- Men cannot see the area of their body that’s at the highest risk for developing a melanoma, which is the back. (For women, the deadliest cancers appear on the legs.) This means that men don’t detect developing cancer once it has started to bleed, scab, change or grow, all of which are skin cancer warning signs. It is crucial to catch melanoma early when it is 100% curable, and waiting even a few months too long can mean the difference between life and death.
Women have some advantages regarding skin cancer
- Women’s long hair may help protect them from developing some forms of skin cancers of the head and neck. Men develop many more precancerous lesions, such as actinic keratosis, on the scalp and ears, due to their thinning hair or bald heads.
- Women tend to use sunscreen more than men. They’re used to applying moisturizer and other types of creams, so adding sunscreen to their daily skin care routines isn’t a big deal. This makes women more proactive when it comes to protecting their skin, whereas men tend to wait until there is a problem and then try to fix it.
- Women think about their skin, a lot. This makes them more diligent about using sunscreen, wearing hats and sunglasses, and seeking shade because of the way the sun can cause their skin to age faster and make them look older. Approximately 90% of the skin changes that occur as a person ages, including wrinkles, sunspots and textural abnormalities, are attributable to UV exposure. In contrast, men usually don’t think much about their skin until there’s a problem.
- Women go to the doctor much more often than men. This means that women are more likely to be referred to a dermatologist because their primary physician or OB/GYN has detected a potential problem.
Good sun protection habits both men and women should follow
- Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s important to make an appointment with a dermatologist as soon as an irregular mole, scaly or crusty area, or any other unusual skin issue is detected.
- Even it takes many years for a bad sunburn to turn into skin cancer, it’s important to teach children from a young age how to properly protect their skin from the harmful rays of the sun. This includes using sunscreen not just at the beach but on the playground, on the soccer field, mowing the lawn and anywhere else they’re in the sun. Encourage them to wear hats and sunglasses when they’re outdoors, and as they get older, to have their skin checked regularly.
- Daily sunscreen use reduces the risk of developing SCC squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) by 40% and melanoma by 50%.
- Apply sunscreen not just to the obvious places—face, arms and legs—but also to the back, ears, scalp, back of the neck, hands and feet.
- When swimming outdoors, wear a swim shirt and water-resistant sunscreen, reapplied frequently.
- Avoid tanning beds. Studies show that people who use a tanning bed for the first time before age 35 increase their risk for developing melanoma by 75%.
Worried that you may have skin cancer? Come see us.
If you’ve noticed a suspicious looking mole or area of skin and think you may be developing skin cancer, or want to learn ways to lower your risk of skin cancer, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment to see one of our Westchester Health dermatologists. He or she will examine your skin, take a sample of the questionable area and have it tested, remove a pre-cancerous or cancerous mole, and/or refer you to an oncologist if needed. Our specialist will also take as much time as is necessary to listen to your concerns and answer your questions so that you fully understand your condition and treatment options. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Alison F. Stallings, MD, FAAD, a Dermatologist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners