Many Blacks believe that because they have darker skin they are protected from skin cancer. Experts say that is certainly not true.
“Skin cancer is less common in people of color, but it does occur. When it occurs it is usually much more aggressive,” said Dr. Christopher Obeime, board certified dermatologist. In fact, the American Cancer Society states that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer.
Some people get skin cancer due to their genetic makeup, having light skin or multiple or unusual moles. Ultraviolet light, which is in sunlight, is the main cause of skin cancer.
The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change in the appearance of the skin, such as a new growth or a sore that will not heal. Changes in shape, size and color of moles may also indicate skin cancer.
There are three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, also called the nonmelanoma skin cancers; and melanoma.
Basal and squamous cell cancers are curable if found early. They typically develop on sun-exposed areas of the skin, like the face, ear, neck, lips, and the backs of the hands. Depending on the type, they can be fast or slow growing, but they rarely spread to other parts of the body.
Melanoma, is not the most prevalent, but is the most serious type of skin cancer.
“You don’t want that one because today, there’s no real cure for it,” said Obeime. “It’s very aggressive and can spread to your brain, liver or bones.”
Although melanoma accounts for only a small percentage of skin cancer, it causes most skin cancer deaths. Dr. William VanNess II, Indiana State Health Department commissioner, said in 2009 there were 1,219 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in Indiana. Statistics say that survival rates for African-Americans diagnosed with melanoma are lower than those of whites.
Blacks should also note that there is a form of melanoma called acral letiginous melanoma that occurs on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It accounts for 20 percent of melanoma deaths and is prevalent within the Black population.
One of the most notable African-Americans who died of melanoma is reggae singer Bob Marley.
Unlike many cancers, there is hope for preventing skin cancer. The first line of defense is routine self body exams. Van Ness said people should follow the ABCDE guideline when looking at a mole or lesion to determine concern. The letter A stands for asymmetry meaning does one half of the mole match the other; are the borders irregular; what color is the mole; is the diameter of a mole or skin lesion greater than the size of a pencil eraser; and are the moles evolving, meaning are they changing shape, size or color.
Other signs or symptoms include itchiness, tenderness, pain, scaliness, oozing or bleeding.
If there are more than two symptoms found when doing self-checkups, a physician should be contacted immediately. Along with self-exams, people should receive a total body skin checkup annually by either a primary care physician or a dermatologist.
People can also receive a skin cancer screening at a local health center or fair. They are less invasive than a full body checkup, but are good ways to bring awareness and create habits of skin cancer checks.
The best ways to lower the risk of skin cancer are to avoid long exposure to intense sunlight and practice sun safety. People should wear sunscreen; wear protective clothing, hats and sunglasses; seek shade; and avoid direct sun exposure between 10 a.m. through 4 p.m.
Van Ness adds that because people receive the most damage to their skin by age 18, kids and teens should certainly follow guidelines to reduce the risk of skin cancer. He also said that ultraviolet rays don’t just occur in the summertime – people should also protect their skin in the wintertime.
For more information, call St. Vincent Cancer Care center at (317) 338-2345 or visit Stvincent.org/cancercare; or the Indiana State Health Department at (317) 233-1325 or State.in.us/isdh.