Skin cancer in dark skin — here’s what you need to know

For many with dark skin, melanoma or skin cancer may seem like a far-off possibility, something that only happens to light-skinned people.  The reality is that skin cancer can occur in any skin type, and while it is less common for people with dark(er) skin, it is often deadlier as it is usually detected in the later stages. Read on for a look at the stats and what you should know about skin cancer in darker skin.

The stats point to greater mortality risk for dark skin

It’s true that, in general, skin cancer is a greater risk for light-skinned individuals. A 2014 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that:

“Among men, Caucasian men had the highest rate of getting melanoma of the skin, followed by American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and African-American men.

Among women, Caucasian women had the highest rate of getting melanoma of the skin, followed by Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, and African-American women.”

While the risk of skin cancer is lower for those with darker skin, the five-year survival rate for melanoma for African Americans is 73 percent, compared with 91 percent for Caucasians, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Many attribute this gap to lower awareness, and, as a result, later detection and skin cancer that is harder to treat. The Skin Cancer Foundation cites a study that found: “Late-stage melanoma diagnoses are more prevalent among minority patients than Caucasian patients; 52 percent of non-Hispanic dark-skinned patients and 26 percent of Hispanic patients receive an initial diagnosis of advanced stage melanoma, versus 16 percent of non-Hispanic light-skinned patients.”

Skin cancer in dark-skinned individuals is not limited to melanoma either. Other types of skin cancer also pose a risk. According to Dr. Perez, director of cosmetic dermatology at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Medical Center and associate professor of clinical dermatology at Columbia University, in an article for the Skin Cancer Foundation:

“Latinos, Chinese, and Japanese Asians tend to develop basal cell carcinoma, the most common skin cancer. But the second most common, squamous cell carcinoma, is more frequent among African Americans and Asian Indians.”

But doesn’t melanin protect the skin?

There is a widely-held belief that those with darker skin don’t need to wear sunscreen or think about sun protection because the extra melanin in their skin already provides enough protection. While it’s true that melanin – the pigment that gives the skin color – helps protect the skin from UV damage, it isn’t able to fully protect it, even for those with a lot of it. That’s why additional sun protection is needed for all skin types to prevent damage that leads to skin cancer and also to prevent the wrinkles and sagging that come with UV exposure.

Further, it’s important to note that some forms of skin cancer aren’t caused by UV exposure but by genetic or environmental drivers. For example, acral lentiginous melanoma, the cancer that killed Bob Marley, disproportionately affects people with dark skin. This rare form of melanoma will typically show up under the nails or toenails as a narrow, dark streak or on the palms or soles of the feet as a dark spot or patch.

Keeping all skin safe starts with prevention

Raising skin cancer awareness is the only way to lower skin cancer mortality rates for dark-skinned people. Every skin type should learn the warning signs: take the proper precautions and conduct regular self-skin checks as well as schedule regular check-ups with a doctor or dermatologist.

 

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