Coping with an Increased Risk of Skin Cancer Following a Transplant
Approximately 30,000 transplants are performed each year in the United States. These lifesaving procedures often give new hope to patients living with organ failure. Patients undergoing a transplant have to take powerful antirejection medications for the rest of their lives that suppress the immune system. Unfortunately, the drugs that allow transplant recipients to live with their new organ also increase their risk of developing skin cancer.
Common Post-Transplant Skin Cancers:
Transplant patients are 100 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma than the general population. This type of skin cancer originates in skin cells called keratinocytes and typically develop within the first five years following a transplant. Individuals undergoing transplants also have a six times greater chance of developing basal cell carcinoma and are twice as likely to develop melanoma than the general population. Transplant patients are also 24 times more likely to develop a rare form of skin cancer known as Merkel cell carcinoma, which is caused by a virus. Skin cancers are also more likely to metastasize in transplant recipients, which leads to more localized skin damage, disfigurement, and a higher mortality rate.
Reasons for Increased Skin Cancer Risk:
A number of different factors may contribute to the increased risk of skin cancer in transplant recipients. First, the antirejection medications that suppress the immune system also make it more difficult for the body to defend itself against the development and proliferation of cancer cells and cancer-causing viruses. These medications may also make the skin more susceptible to sun damage. A number of transplant patients may also have a higher risk stemming from a prior history of sun exposure or genetic factors, such as fair skin and a tendency to burn rather than tan.
Reducing the Risk of Skin Cancer:
Transplant recipients should be especially diligent in protecting their skin against excessive sun exposure, including using sunscreen, hats, and clothing to shield the skin from the sun. They should also examine their skin regularly for any signs of abnormal growths or lesions. Patients are also advised to consult a dermatologist at least annually for a total-body skin exam. Any suspicious lesions should be treated as soon as possible to reduce the risk of metastasis. Patients should let their transplant doctor know if they have a history of skin cancer so that their doctor can choose a medication regimen that will keep the risk of new skin cancers to a minimum.