Darker Skin and Skin Cancer: What to Know

checking for moles

09 Oct Darker Skin and Skin Cancer: What to Know

A suspicious mole is one of the first things that dermatologists tell you to look for if you’re worried about skin cancer. For those with fair skin, that’s easy — dark spots on the skin are easy to see. For those with darker skin, however, it may not be so apparent.

Who Gets Skin Cancer?

Anyone can get skin cancer, no matter the color of their skin. Caucasians are more likely to develop the disease — melanoma, for example, is over 20 times more common in white people than in people of color — but Caucasians have far higher survival rates. For white patients, the estimated five-year survival rate for melanoma is 94%, compared to a 69% survival rate for black patients.

One of the deadliest skin cancers among African-Americans is acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) — the same type that legendary musician Bob Marley died from. The misconception that skin cancer occurs only in white populations is possibly due to the fact that dark skin, thanks to its abundance of melanin, is less susceptible to UV damage.

Even though skin cancer is not nearly as common in those with darker complexions, they should still be aware of the warning signs — perhaps even more so.

How to Examine Dark Skin for Cancer

Everyone should do a monthly skin self-exam, using the ABCDE and “ugly duckling” method to examine moles and other spots. Though you should examine every inch of your body, ethnicities including Asian, Filipino, Indonesian, native Hawaiians and others with dark skin should pay close attention to non-exposed skin that features less pigment, such as the palms, soles of the feet and around nails, as those are the areas in which melanomas most commonly develop. Marley’s ALM, for example, first appeared under a toenail.

Those with dark skin should look for the same thing as light-skinned patients: a bump that bleeds, oozes or crusts over and does not seem to heal; scaly spots that may be reddish and crusty; or new moles that don’t look like any others around it or are located in unusual places. If you are having trouble examining your own skin, see a dermatologist to schedule regular examinations.

Last but not least, those with darker skin should use sunscreen every day. Among African-Americans in a Skin Cancer Foundation survey, 63% said they never used sunscreen, which is an alarmingly high number. Melanin does protect the skin to an extent, but dark skin can still get sunburned and damaged by UV rays — which, of course, is a major cause of skin cancer.

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