The idea that people of color do not get skin cancer is a myth – and stands in the way of raising awareness of melanoma. This misconception comes from the idea that the darker your natural skin tone, the more melanin you have to offer some degree of sun protection factor (SPF). However, even among people with very dark skin, melanin still isn’t enough protection from the dangerous effects of the sun.
Later Diagnosis = Lower Survival
A recent study of 649 people showed that 32% of Black patients were diagnosed with Stage 3 or Stage 4 disease, while only 13% of white patients were similarly diagnosed at such a late stage. Advanced stage at diagnosis leads to worse outcomes and a shortened life span. Black Americans are also far less likely to receive surgery for their melanomas compared with Caucasians, even though it improves survival. Even when people of color get appropriate treatment, they often experience delays.
Melanoma Looks Different
People of color can develop melanoma caused by UV light. They are also at risk for developing rare melanoma sub-types not caused by the sun, such as acral melanoma. This melanoma forms in places that are not typically exposed to the sun, such as the palms, soles of feet, or under finger or toenails.
Those with skin of color should take precautions to help prevent skin cancer:
Use a sunscreen that says “broad spectrum,” which covers both UVA and UVB. The sun protective factor (SPF) should be at least 15 under normal conditions. When at the lake or beach, use a water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.
Limit exposure to the sun between 10am – 4pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest.
Cover up with fabrics that are dark or bright, which are more protective.
Wear a wide-brimmed hat, (at least 3″ extending around the hat to cover your face), and use sunglasses that say “UV-blocking” to protect your eyes.
Because many people of color believe they are not at risk of skin cancer, education is extremely important. Learning about the warning signs of skin cancer, practicing regular self-examinations and having an annual skin examination by a dermatologist can help skin cancer from being detected early and in most cases, when detected early, skin cancer is highly treatable.
What should people who have skin of color look for in a self-exam?
Dark spot, growth, or darker patch of skin that is growing, bleeding, or changing in any way.
Sore that has a hard time healing, especially if the sore appears in a scar or on skin that was injured in the past.
Patch of skin that feels rough and dry.
Dark line underneath or around a fingernail or toenail.
An annual exam by a dermatologist is recommended if you have a parent, sibling or child with a history of melanoma.
Where should people who have skin of color look closely?
Check places that get little sun — the bottoms of your feet, toenails, lower legs, groin, and buttocks.
Spend time looking at the skin on your head, neck, and hands. Be sure to look inside your mouth, examine your palms, and check for dark lines around and underneath your fingernails.
Examine hard-to-see areas like the top of your head and back by using a handheld mirror or asking a partner to check these areas.
In May 1981 the music world lost a legend when reggae artist Bob Marley died after a four-year battle with a melanoma skin cancer that started on his toe. Marley was diagnosed with a rare but fast-growing type of skin cancer known as acral melanoma, which is NOT strongly linked to UV exposure. Acral melanoma is the most common type of melanoma among people with darker skin.
Named after their location – the hairless acral skin on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and under the nails – these tumors are very different from the majority of melanomas that arise elsewhere on the hairy bits of the skin, which are known as ‘cutaneous’ melanomas.
Acral melanoma begins as a patch of discolored skin that gets bigger over time. When caught early, acral melanoma can be easily treated.