The Facts on Cancer in Dark-Skinned People
“Many people feel that because the melanin pigment in their skin protects them from sunburn and premature aging, that it will also protect them from skin cancer.” This is not true, according to Susan C. Taylor, M.D., internationally recognized expert in dermatology, trained at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.1
Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers
- Skin Cancer Treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center
Skin Cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States each year. Melanoma is the rarest and most aggressive form. Read about 2 other types of non-melanoma skin cancers: Basal cell carcinomas and Squamous cell carcinomas.
In a 2010 interview with Essence Magazine, Dr. Taylor revealed or affirmed the following facts on dark-skinned people and cancer:
- Hispanics and blacks receive little or no education from their doctors concerning the risks and prevention of the disease.
- Black individuals have lesser risk than Whites for skin cancer, but they still have a potential risk, regardless of how dark their skin is.
- Early signs of melanoma--the deadliest form of skin cancer-- in Blacks are missed because they show up in unusual places such as the palms and soles, fingernails and toenails and the inner surface of the mouth and genitals.
- Dark-skinned people who develop skin cancer are more likely than Whites to die from the disease.
- Mortality is higher for the Black population because the diagnosis is made at a later stage; physicians may not know how to diagnose skin cancer in Blacks.
Dr. Taylor encouraged that Blacks be educated through media and doctor’s offices. She also suggested monthly skin examinations (see below) and annual visits to the dermatologist to check for symptoms in the unusual places mentioned above.
The ABCDE Guide for Self-Check
Guide to Monthly Skin Examinations
“When melanoma develops in people whose untanned skin color is brown, it most often starts on the palm, soles of the feet and under the nails.” – American Cancer Society (ACS)2
The ACS has established the "ABCDE” guide to help individuals recognize the common melanoma symptoms.
They advise that any spots matching the descriptions of the moles3 in the ABCDE guide (to the right) should be reported to the physician.
The description of each mole is below the picture for A,B,C and D. E is a mole which shows any change in size, shape or color.
Procedure for Self-Check
The ACS advises the person doing a monthly personal examination to use the following procedure:
- Stand in front of the mirror to check face, ears, neck, chest and belly, underarms.
- Use hand mirrors to check the bottom of feet, calves, back of thighs, buttocks, genital area, lower and upper back, and back of neck.
- Sit to check front of thighs, shins, tops of feet, in between toes and toenails.
- Also check tops and palms of hands, in between fingers and fingernails.
- Part hair and check scalp.
E=Evolving: This is the most common warning sign of skin cancer--any mole that changes color, shape or size.
Relevant Warnings for Dark-Skinned People
Family History Is Not a Safe Guide
Some think that if there is no family history of skin cancer, there is nothing to fear. Consider two facts:
- Personal history (number of past sunburns and moles) is more significant than genetics.4
- So many people now are bi-racial, even multi-racial? What are the skin colors and diagnoses in your family three generations back?
Black Skin Can Be Over Exposed
Some Blacks are comfortable hearing that melanin provides a sun protection factor (SPF) approximately equivalent to 13.4, compared to 3.4 in white skin. Still, black skin can be overexposed to sunlight.5 More than 5 sunburns and non-use of sunscreen can signal danger.6
Some Medications Make Skin Sensitive
Medications used for blood pressure or diabetes make the skin more sensitive to sunlight. People who use them need to use sunscreen outdoors: when gardening, for example.7
Other Risk Factors
Other reported risk factors for melanoma in minority populations include: albinism, burn scars, radiation therapy, trauma,and immunosuppression.8
Sunscreen with SPF 15
Keep up with new information on the topic. In addition to the monthly personal checks and the annual dermatologist screening, here are some daily prevention tips.9, 10
- Dark skinned people need sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 15 or higher.
- The sun’s rays are strongest between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Stay in the shade when possible.
- Darker colors and tightly woven fabric offer more skin protection than white T-shirts.
- Water,snow and sand reflect the sun’s rays and increases the chances of sunburn. Be careful!
Types of Treatment
New patients who have not yet received treatment may participate in a clinical trial (part of the cancer research process) to determine whether a new treatment would be safer or more effective than a standard treatment. If not, they may receive one or more of these five standard treatments.11
Brief Descriptions of the Treatments
(1) Mohs Micrographic Surgery
(2) Radiation Therapy
(4) Photodynamic Therapy
(5) Biological Therapy
Thin layers are removed until no more cancer cells are seen.
Radiation kills cancer cells or keep them from growing.
Drugs stop the growth of cancer cells by killing them or by stopping them from dividing.
A laser light shined onto the skin activates a drug which kills cancer cells.
Substances made by the body or lab boost the body’s defenses.
The US Census Bureau projects that by the year 2050, 50 percent of the US population will be comprised of Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans.12 Now, more than ever, it is important to raise awareness of skin cancer in people of color. Please spread the word!
Nothing contained in this article should be considered or used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
References and Recommended Reading
1. Schrijver, Cathy Chermol: Black Women Highest Mortality Risk from Skin Cancer; Essence (07/28/2010)
2. American Cancer Society: What You Should Know about Melanoma, (visited 06/04/2014)
3. Photo Credit: Pictures in the ABCDE Guide are uploaded on Wikimedia Commons by the Skin Cancer Foundation.
4 and 6. Dreisbch, Shaun: The 5 Skin Cancer Mistakes We All Make; Glamour, Condé Nast Publications, NY; (May 2014)
5, 8 and 12.Gohara, Mona MD Perez, Maritza MD: Skin Cancer and Skin of Color, Skin Cancer Foundation ((visited 06/04/2014)
7. Anderson, Jessica Cumberbatch: Skin Cancer In African Americans: Why You Shouldn't Ignore It, Huffing Post (06/01/2012)
9. Gordon, Ed: Skin Cancer Myths and the African-American Community, NPR (08/07/2006)
10. Fox Chase Cancer Center: Sun Safety Tips (06/09/2014)
11. Fox Chase Cancer Center: Skin Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) (02/07/2014)
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