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Study: Non-melanoma skin cancer at 'epidemic' level

LOS ANGELES - Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. But just how common is it? According to a new estimate, more than 2.1 million Americans were treated for 3.5 million cases of the cancers in 2006.

Since cases of non-melanoma skin cancer usually aren't reported to cancer registries, experts must rely on estimates. Until this week, the most recent national estimate had been from 1994 - back then, researchers pegged the number of cancers at between 900,000 and 1.2 million per year.

To reach the new figure, researchers used two Medicare databases to tally the number of skin cancer procedures performed on patients covered by the government health plan. Then they used national survey data to extrapolate those figures to the entire U.S. population.

The results indicate the incidence of skin cancer is "about double" what it was in 1994, the researchers wrote in Archives of Dermatology. Not only are more people getting non-melanoma skin cancer, but the number of procedures per patient is rising too. "There is an epidemic of [non-melanoma skin cancer] in the United States," according to the report.

This type of skin cancer usually isn't deadly if found early, but the toll is still significant. The American Academy of Dermatology says treatment of non-melanoma skin cancer cost $1.5 billion in 2004.

The researchers didn't say why they thought the rates were rising so fast - perhaps the rise of tanning salons is partly to blame. They did note "educational programs emphasizing sun protection have mainly been disappointing in slowing skin cancer rates," and said more research is needed. - Los Angeles Times

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