Rising rates of skin cancer in the U.S. are taking a toll not only on the nation’s health, but on its wallet as well, a new federal study finds.
Even as new cases of the disease climb to nearly 5 million a year, the annual costs associated with treating skin cancer have topped $8.1 billion, rising five times faster than care for all other kinds of cancer combined.
That puts a new price tag on efforts to stop skin cancer — including deadly melanoma — from occurring in the first place, said Dr. Gery Guy, a health economist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We usually talk about prevention saving lives, but the potential to save medical costs is also staggering,” said Guy, whose review of skin cancer costs in U.S. adults is published Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Federal officials knew that the number of new skin cancer cases in the U.S. was going up, rising from 3.4 million annually in 2002–2006 to 4.9 million a year in 2007–2011. But little was known about the costs associated with that increase, Guy said.
The average annual cost for skin cancer treatment nationwide jumped from $3.6 billion in 2002–2006 to $8.1 billion in 2007–2011, a rise of 126 percent. During the same periods, the average cost for treating all other kinds of cancers grew by about 25 percent, according to analysis of federal Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data.
The skin cancer jump was fueled both by the increase in the number of patients treated and also a rise in the cost of care per person, the data showed. An average patient’s costs rose from $1,044 a year in 2002–2006 to $1,643 a year in 2007–2011.
But the most striking spike was seen in per-person annual care for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which rose from about $2,320 a year to $4,780 a year, a jump of 106 percent.
It’s not clear exactly what caused the sharp rise in treatment costs for skin cancer overall and melanoma in particular, Guy said. The data showed that the percentage of patients seen in hospitals quadrupled from about 8 percent to about 32 percent in the two study periods, which could have had higher associated costs than outpatient care.
New drugs and other treatments also might have contributed to the increase, said Dr. Veena Shankaran, a medical oncologist and health economist with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved three new drugs for treating melanoma in 2011 alone: ipilimumab, peginterferon alfa-2b and vemurafenib. Advanced imaging devices and other diagnostic tools could also be a factor, she suggested.
“We definitely have seen the landscape of melanoma treatment change in the last few years,” said Shankaran, who works with HICOR, the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research.
Another problem is that many people in the U.S. fail to take skin cancer seriously, skipping sun protection and actively seeking bronzed skin on the beach or in tanning beds. They expose themselves to the ultraviolet radiation, or UV rays, that damage the DNA inside skin cells causing cancer.
The U.S. surgeon general issued a report in July calling skin cancer a public health crisis and urging Americans to seek shelter from the sun, avoid indoor tanning, wear protective gear like hats and sunglasses, and use sunscreen with a sun protection factor – SPF – of at least 15.
Helping people prevent not only the health effects of cancers but also the costs associated with them, is a key mission for HICOR, Shankaran said.
“Prevention is obviously one of the most important strategies,” she said. “If people don’t get cancers, we’re not going to be dealing with this problem.”
But it’s also imperative that doctors consider the costs of care along with the efficacy and make sure that treatment is based in sound scientific evidence.
“The burden is really on us as an oncology community to identify care that does not benefit patients and is very costly and to spare people and society from these kinds of interventions,” Shankaran said.
JoNel Aleccia is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. From 2008 to 2014, she was a national health reporter for NBC News and msnbc.com. Before that she was a reporter, editor and columnist for more than two decades at newspapers in the Northwest. Reach her at email@example.com.