Skin cancer rates among Caucasians have been climbing steadily over the last decade, but so too are the number of incidences in ethnic skin. At the core of the problem is the (erroneous) belief that ethnic skin is immune from the sun’s carcinogenic rays. “People need to realize that skin of color burns too,” says YouBeauty Dermatology Expert, Jeanine B. Downie, M.D. “Radiation absorbed from the sun can have you seeing cancer down the road.”
However, while it’s hard to find data comparing skin cancer rates between white and non-caucasian skin types, we do know that melanoma mortality rates among darker-skin people are disproportionately higher. That’s because all these forms of cancer tend to be diagnosed at a later stage when they’re often advanced and potentially fatal, explains Dr. Mona Gohara, M.D., assistant clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine’s department of dermatology.
“Bob Marley died at age 36 from a melanoma that started under a toenail and spread to his brain,” says Maryland dermatologist, Dr. Noelle S. Sherber. “Lesions in these areas tend to grow horizontally and spread out on the skin’s surface, so early detection is key.”
Non-melanoma skin cancers are also on the rise. The milder, basal cell carcinoma is predominantly found among Caucasians, Hispanics and Asians, while the more aggressive squamous cell carcinoma most commonly strikes the African American and Asian Indian communities and can metastasize to other organs quickly.
Research has found that basal cell carcinomas occur primarily on the parts of the body that receive the most UV exposure. Squamous cell carcinomas show up in exposed areas too, but also exhibit on legs and in the anogenital region on African American skin. Pay close attention to any lesion that bleeds, oozes, crusts, won’t heal or lasts longer than a month; in those cases see a dermatologist immediately.
Experts point to a cultural lack of sun awareness and education among many ethnic groups as a factor. While Caucasians tend to be versed in the ABCDE warning signs of skin cancer (asymmetry, border irregularity, color, diameter and evolution) and are more likely to schedule regular skin cancer screenings with a dermatologist, it’s a popular belief among minorities that skin of color provides a natural shield and such vigilant care isn’t necessary.
“Higher levels of melanin in skin affords you a certain level of protection, but people need to understand that it doesn’t circumvent the risk,” says Downie. “Until that message gets across, I think it’s going to be depressing when it comes to statistics and who dies from skin cancer.”
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