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Detecting skin cancer in darker skin


May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, a reminder for all of us to protect our skin. Although it’s a common misconception that African-Americans and other people of color can’t develop skin cancer, in fact, they’re particularly at risk. Here are important skin cancer facts and tips for people with darker skin.

Tips for African-Americans
Woman at the beach with sunscreen

Darker skin – what’s the difference?

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, an estimated 76,690 new cases of invasive melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, will be diagnosed in the United States in 2013. That alarming statistic includes people of color, who often believe they don’t need protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays.

Although melanoma is uncommon in African-Americans, Asians and Latinos, recent studies show that when it occurs, it is often fatal in these communities. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports the five-year survival rate for African-Americans with melanoma is 77 percent, compared to 91 percent for Caucasians.

“Malignancies in African-Americans develop in non-exposed areas of the skin [like] the palms, soles of the feet and under the toenails,” explains Dr. Carlos Burnett, one of the top plastic surgeons in the country specializing in ethnic skin. “Usually cases are more advanced, [because the cancer] has gone unrecognized.”

The most common types of skin cancer that affect people of color are malignant melanoma, which is seen mostly in African- Americans, Asians, Native Americans and darker–skinned Hispanics, and non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal and squamous cell carcinoma.

Detecting skin cancer in ethnic skin

To detect the early stages of melanoma, physicians came up with the ABCDEs of melanoma: A for asymmetry; B for irregular borders; C for a variety of colors; D for diameter larger than 6 mm; and E for evolving size, shape, color, elevation or any new symptom. Another memory aid is “the Ugly Duckling sign,” which refers to moles that look and feel different than others.

Dr. Burnett also advises people of color to watch out for a bruise or sore that doesn’t heal, a stripe beneath a nail, a white patch on the tongue or inside the mouth, usually from smoking, and blotchy skin, especially on the legs.

How to prevent skin cancer

As a precaution, Dr. Burnett says it’s important that people of color protect themselves with a daily combination sunscreen/sunblock with SPF 15 or higher. If you use sunscreen alone, make sure it provides both UVA and UVB protection and re-apply it every few hours.

Because skin cancer in ethnic skin usually develops in unexposed areas, Dr. Burnett recommends monthly self-exams and getting a full-body scan at least once a year from a dermatologist. In May, free full-body skin cancer screenings are available across the country courtesy of the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Road to Healthy Skin Tour.

When spending time outdoors, wearing protective clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of all UV radiation are also essential.

More skin cancer information

Childhood stress could be linked to skin cancer risk
Skin cancer facts
Cancer: The importance of early detection

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