Survey Shows Americans Are Unaware of Common Type of Skin Cancer

A recent survey showed that most Americans do not know what cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma is and how severe the disease can be if it advances.
BY Kristie L. Kahl
PUBLISHED September 19, 2019
Three out of four Americans are not familiar with what cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma is, and worse, 72% don’t understand that the disease can spread and become life-threatening, according to survey results conducted by by The Harris Poll in May.

When caught early, cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma – the second most common type of cancer in the U.S. – has a good prognosis. However, as it advances, it becomes difficult to treat. For example, the Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that 1 million cases of cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma are diagnosed every year and 40,000 of those will become advanced, with an estimated 15,000 who will die from the disease.

Because of this, the survey highlights the need for more awareness around the disease. CURE spoke with Dr. Ariel Ostad, a dermatologic surgeon at NYU Langone Health and a member of the Skin Cancer Foundation, about the survey findings and why it is important to raise awareness around cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma.

Why do you think it is so many do not know what cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma is?
Ostad: That's a great question. I think the reason for why the majority of Americans don't know, is truly because not enough information is out there for them to know that. Patients typically hear melanoma, and they associate melanoma with being the most common type of cancer when it is actually not by any means the most common type. I really think it's just a matter of, unfortunately, not enough information and education is out there for the public.

Why is it important to start discussions around this disease?
I think it's really important to inform the public about this type of skin cancer, because unfortunately, when cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma is advanced it can actually metastasize or spread and it can become fatal. Given the fact that it is the second most common type of skin cancer in the United States; it's more common than breast, prostate and lung cancer combined; and the fact that it has the ability to unfortunately progress, it becomes critical to have a discussion about the disease and hopefully inform the public about how important it is to detect this types of cancer early to really avoid the truly tragic consequences.

What would you say is the biggest thing that we need to address out of what you and your colleagues found?
Number one, that more than half of Americans incorrectly think that melanoma is the most common type of skin cancer, yet in actuality, squamous cell carcinoma is actually diagnosed five times more often than melanoma. And similarly, the majority of Americans know that melanoma can be life threatening. However, only about a quarter of Americans know that cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma can be life threatening when it is advanced.  

Therefore, it really is incumbent upon us as physicians, and hopefully the media to educate the public about the importance of treating this early and avoiding this type of cancer from becoming too advanced because treating squamous cell carcinoma, it becomes extremely difficult to treat. Luckily, we have some new systemic therapies that are important. But it's important to catch these things early.

What other ways can we try to help to raise more awareness around this disease?
I think discussions like what we are doing is an incredible opportunity, an incredible resource for individuals. And I think by just bringing awareness around the importance of prevention, the importance of avoiding sunburns, and the importance of early detection, and making people aware that just because there's a growth on your body, and it doesn't hurt you, it doesn’t mean that it’s not dangerous. It's important to educate individuals so that they can be the best advocate and, therefore, catch squamous cell carcinoma early on where it is very easily treated with surgery. I think ultimately, it's about catching things early, because unfortunately, the Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that about 40,000 people in the United States each year are diagnosed with advanced cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. It's estimated that approximately 15,000 people died of the skin cancer each year, and that's too high of a number. We want to hopefully bring that down to zero. It all starts with educating people about how important it is to catch things early.
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