Skin Cancer Still a Risk for People of Color

While the effects of the sun on fair or light skin are better known, the impact on darker or ethnic skin is less understood. What is known is that in the last 30 years, the deadliest form of skin cancer — malignant melanoma — continues to increase among all races claiming in the U.S. alone, 22 lives a day, says a dermatology expert with the Harris County Hospital District.

“In African-American and Asian populations, malignant melanoma is most commonly located on hands and feet, while among Caucasians and Hispanics, it’s found on the legs and back,” says Dr. Valencia Thomas, director, Dermatology, Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital and Quentin Mease Community Hospital, and assistant professor, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).

Skin Cancer Still a Risk for People of Color According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 1 in 5 Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year. Although more prevalent among Caucasians, skin cancer should be a concern for people of color. Melanin, the pigment in skin, is a natural protection from harmful ultraviolet rays and sunburns. However, this protection is not perfect and excess sun over a lifetime is a high-risk factor for skin cancer.

Although some melanomas can be life-threatening, if caught early, malignant melanoma has a five-year survival rate of 98 percent. If left untreated, it can spread to the lymph nodes or other vital organs. Malignant melanoma is the third most common form of cancer, annually killing about 8,000 people of the 60,000 afflicted.

Each year, approximately 2 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed. Aside from malignant melanoma, the other common cancers are basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinomas (SCC).

Basal cell carcinomas
This cancer appears as a growing bump with blood vessels. These bumps tend to bleed easily and may have a dark brown or black color in ethnic populations. It tends to appear in the head and neck and is most common among Hispanics and Asians, and second most common among South Asian Indians and African Americans.

Squamous cell carcinomas
This cancer is most common among South Asian and African American populations. It appears as firm bumps, sometimes with thick scale. These cancers are strongly tied to sun exposure, but are also associated with chronic scars and non-healing ulcers. Among South Asian Indians and African Americans, this skin cancer is found on the legs or the genital area.

“Although excess ultraviolet radiation is a risk factor for developing malignant melanoma in Caucasians, the role of these rays among ethnic populations is not well known. People with new or changing moles that have irregular borders, color and appear bigger than a pencil eraser should get them examined immediately,” Thomas advises.

Two main factors contribute to skin cancer – family history and sun exposure.

“People who have a first degree relative (mother, father, sister, brother or child) with skin cancer are more likely to develop skin cancer. As a result, yearly skin exams are important to detect abnormal and changing spots,” she says.

Sun protection is critical to prevent skin cancer. In small doses, it can provide necessary vitamin D, but too much can cause sunburn and skin cancer. Preventing sunburns by avoiding peak sun times (2-4 p.m.) is important. Applying sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) can protect users. Remember, sunscreen should be applied and reapplied every two hours or after swimming.

“It’s important to know your body. Performing regular self-exams and having annual skin check-ups will catch new or changing lesions. The hope is to get to it early and treat it quickly,” Thomas says.

For more information about skin cancer, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Dermatology or the Skin Cancer Foundation.

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