How Is Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Staged?

How Is Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Staged? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Skin cancer expert Dr. Vernon Sondak describes how advanced non-melanoma skin cancer is staged and explains which factors are taken into consideration to understand an individual’s diagnosis.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                  

And we are going to focus today on advanced disease. So, what makes this type of cancer considered advanced?

Dr. Sondak:                

So, this also is somewhat – I won’t say controversial. I’ll just say it’s not uniformly agreed on by everybody. Not everyone means the exact same thing or has the exact same definition in their mind when they say advanced.

It’s a little different than the stage. The staging of skin cancer is mostly based on the size. So, a small skin cancer is almost never an advanced skin cancer. By small I mean less than 2 centimeters, sometimes. Depending where. Two centimeters is just under an inch.

But 2 centimeters in the middle of your face or on the tip of your nose. That’s already a pretty big problem. So, somebody might say, “Well, that’s kind of advanced.” Yes it is. But that’s not what we’re really talking about here. We’re talking about larger tumors. Tumors that have spread deeply into the tissues, or tumors that have spread and gotten to the next stages. Stage III, meaning in the lymph nodes. Or stage IV, meaning it’s spread beyond the lymph nodes, to the lungs and beyond.  

In terms of stages, in terms of stage III and stage IV, basal and squamous cell cancers, we are talking about much fewer than 2 percent of all those skin cancers. For basal cell, way fewer. For squamous cell, slightly fewer than 2 percent of all cases ever getting to a higher stage, like stage III and stage IV.

Sometimes they can be very advanced without ever spreading to the lymph nodes or beyond because they invade down into the bone. Could be on the top your scalp and invade down into your skull bone. Can be on the cheek, and invade, and follow the track along the nerves of the face. A lot of ways that the skin cancer can become advanced without spreading. But cancers that have spread are automatically considered advanced.

Katherine:                  

Right. That helps us understand the disease and how it progresses.

Is the COVID Vaccine Safe and Effective for Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients?

Is the COVID Vaccine Safe and Effective for Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Vernon Sondak discusses the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccine for advanced non-melanoma skin cancer patients.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                  

Is the COVID vaccine safe and effective for advanced non-melanoma skin cancer patients?

Dr. Sondak:                

I’ve spent my entire career studying the human immune system and vaccines for cancer. The COVID vaccine is the safest, most effective vaccine we have ever seen. It is like the difference between the Wright brothers airplane and the Apollo spaceships in terms of sophistication.

It is a vaccine that has gotten politicized and has gotten tangled up in all kinds of stuff. But again, it is the safest, most effective vaccine we’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it for all of our patients. I believe that all of our patients with cancer, and their family members, and their children of appropriate age should be vaccinated and boosted.

Even if you do that, as I have done, I go vaccinated, I got boosted, and I got COVID. It was milder than the usual cold I get every year before COVID. If I hadn’t been tested, I wouldn’t have even known I had it. I only get tested to avoid spreading it to family members and especially to vulnerable patients. If your immune system is weakened and it’s even more important to be vaccinated.

So, the only advice I give to my patients about the vaccine, and the vaccination specifically, is think about which arm to have it in. If you’ve got an active cancer, say in the left arm, have it in the right arm. Not because it will hurt the cancer, but because in the early days after the vaccine, you may get a little bit of swelling of the lymph nodes. We don’t want your doctor or anybody doing a CAT scan, or ultrasound, or mammogram, or any other test to accidentally think that those enlarged lymph nodes are from the cancer.

If you had the vaccine recently and are getting any type of diagnostic procedure, like a CAT scan mammogram or ultrasound of those lymph nodes, tell the team that you had a recent COVID vaccine.

Katherine:                  

That’s excellent advice. Thank you. Good to know.

What Is Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer?

What Is Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Vernon Sondak provides an overview of the types of skin cancer and defines non-melanoma skin cancer.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.
 

Katherine:                  

Let’s start with the basics Dr. Sondak. What exactly is non-melanoma skin cancer?

Dr. Sondak:                

Well, it’s a great question. Sometimes we wish there was a better term, because it obviously is defining this by what it’s not, not by what it is.

Katherine:                  

Right.

Dr. Sondak:                

Melanoma is the most prevalent of the really severe skin cancers. By severe, I mean the ones with the highest chance of spreading and dying. Each year in the United States, there are close to 10,000 deaths from melanoma every year, and about 100,000 cases of invasive melanoma.

But the other forms of skin cancer, and the most common two forms of skin cancer, are basal cell and squamous cell cancers. These two cancers alone, they are about two to three million cases a year, compared to 100,000 melanoma cases.

Katherine:                  

Wow.

Dr. Sondak:                

But probably causing fewer deaths than those 100,000 melanomas. So, there are many, many more of the skin cancers that aren’t melanoma, then there are of the skin cancers that are melanoma.

In fact, there are probably more skin cancers – just if we took basal and squamous cell cancer – there are probably more of those diagnosed every year in the United States than all other forms of cancer put together.

Katherine:                  

Wow. Wow.

Dr. Sondak:                

Now in general, these skin cancers – besides melanoma – are at a low risk of spreading, and metastasizing, and killing the person if their immune system is normal. So, they have almost gotten passed off as, “Oh, it’s just the skin cancer. It’s nothing to worry about.” But when they reach a certain size, when they get to a point where we call them advanced, then now the stakes are higher. It’s not millions of advanced cases, but it’s many tens of thousands of advanced cases in the United States. Some of them do spread and some of them can be life threatening, or even lethal.