Can People of Color Get Skin Cancer?

Associate Professor of Oncology, Department of Dermatology
Wednesday, April 19, 2017 - 3:24pm

Yes, absolutely they can. It’s a myth that people of color, including African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, don’t get skin cancer. In fact, Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley died at the age of 36 from a rare form of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

While people with darker skin don’t get skin cancer as frequently as do Caucasians, when it is diagnosed in a person of color, the cancer is often more advanced, more difficult to treat, and more likely to be fatal. Three skin cancer types you need to know about are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma.

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation, from sun exposure or tanning beds, plays a major role in the development of all types of skin cancer, especially basal cell carcinoma. However, other factors are important as well and may play a particularly prominent role in pigmented skin especially in cases of squamous cell cancer and melanoma. These factors include burn scars, chronic injury, a depressed immune system (such as after organ transplant), skin lupus, albinism and non-healing leg ulcers.

Melanoma in people of color is uncommon, and 75 percent of cases appear on skin areas not typically exposed to the sun, such as the palms, soles, mouth, genitals, and under fingernails and toenails. Among African Americans, 30 percent to 40 percent of melanomas are found on the soles of the feet. Therefore it may be overlooked and thus diagnosed at a more advanced stage.

How to Protect Yourself

Be sun smart. Everyone must protect his or her skin from the sun. Both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays damage the skin and cause wrinkling, premature aging, and skin cancer. While darker skin does not burn as easily, it’s the damage you can’t see right away that is particularly worrisome.

I recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen (i.e., protects against both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of at least 30 every day. Reapply every two hours while outdoors, be sure your sunscreen is water-resistant and reapply it more frequently when you are swimming or exercising.

Check your skin regularly. Skin cancer can develop anywhere on the skin, which means you must check everywhere, from head to toe. Notice any spot that looks irregular or has changed as well as a sore that does not heal. Getting familiar with your skin will help you notice growths that change or stand out as different or suspicious. Aim to look at your skin once a month.

Here’s how to check. Raise your hands, and stand before a full-length mirror to examine your body’s front, back and sides. Use a hand mirror to check the back of your neck, scalp, back and buttocks. Bend your elbows to examine your forearms, and check your upper arms, hands and palms. Check the front and back of your legs, feet, soles and between your toes. If any spots are different from the others, or are changing, itching, or bleeding, make an appointment to see a dermatologist. Check all your fingernails and toenails for a band of brown or black pigment, or an extension of pigment to the side or base of a nail. If you find any suspicious marks or lesions, be sure to show your health care provider. Find more information on skin cancer among people of color at www.skinofcolorsociety.org

Get Checked!

Free Skin Cancer Screening at KeyBank Center on Thursday, May 11 at 3 to 7 p.m. Meet Sabres Alumni, tour the locker rooms and receive cancer education materials. Register by phone or to learn if you are eligible by calling 1-877-ASK-RPCI (1-877-275-7724).