February is African American History Month. Among much else, it can serve as a fitting reminder about a myth that has persisted for too long: African Americans (and those with darker skin tones) can’t get skin cancer. In fact, among the African American population, melanoma – the most serious kind of skin cancer – is much more deadly than among Caucasians.
You may have heard that naturally dark-skinned people have less chance of getting skin cancer, and that is true. Darker skin naturally has more melanin, the dark pigment that protects against the sun’s UV rays. But the simple fact is, no one is immune to skin cancer.
The Skin Cancer Foundation shares these facts:
- The overall 5-year melanoma survival rate for African Americans is only 77 percent, versus 91 percent for Caucasians.
- 52 percent of non-Hispanic black patients receive an initial diagnosis of advanced stage melanoma, versus 16 percent of non-Hispanic white patients.
- Melanomas in African Americans (and other nationalities, including Asians, Filipinos and Indonesians) most often occur on non-exposed skin with less pigment. Up to 75 percent of tumors arise on the palms, soles, mucous membranes and nail regions.
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the most common skin cancer among African Americans. It tends to be more aggressive and carry a 20-40 percent risk of metastasis (spreading).
- Skin cancer comprises one to two percent of all cancers in African Americans.
Why is this? One reason is that the familiar story about how darker skin has a higher SPF than lighter skin (which it does) has for too long translated into “My dark skin prevents me from getting skin cancer” (which it doesn’t). It’s important to keep skin cancer top of mind; early diagnosis is often critical in successfully treating melanoma and other skin cancers.
Another big reason, according to Dr. Charles E. Crutchfield III, is within the medical community. Crutchfield is a board-certified dermatologist in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with specialized experience treating ethic skin. He says that the relatively higher incidences of skin cancers among Caucasians – and therefore the related training for physicians – makes it more difficult for professionals to diagnose skin cancer among African Americans and other ethnic groups. The lesions, moles and other symptoms that commonly help with a skin cancer diagnosis do not always appear as readily on someone with darker skin.
Skin cancer in African Americans is also more apt to develop in harder-to-find areas such as under fingernails or toenails.
So education is one of our most effective tools to combat skin cancer. As African American History Month continues, keep in mind how you can avoid skin cancer.
Be SunAWARE and be safe!