While skin cancer is less common in African Americans, experts say death rates from melanoma are much higher in the African American community. Melanoma, which often presents as an irregular mole, can spread much quicker and easier than most other skin cancers and can produce worse outcomes. Melanoma is often found in later stages in African Americans when treatment can require more intensive surgery or even radiation or chemotherapy. Knowing the signs and symptoms can help catch melanoma early, when the cancer can be cured.
African Americans are up to four times more likely to be diagnosed with advanced melanoma and 1.5 times more likely to die from melanoma, according to the Melanoma Research Alliance. This is alarming, considering African Americans account for a small portion of melanoma diagnoses.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. The three major types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma can present as pink or scaly lesions that are not healing or spots that are bleeding, itchy or painful. These forms of cancer are largely treatable and less severe than melanoma, which presents as an irregular mole.
UV rays from the sun and tanning beds are responsible for most cases of skin cancer. While sun exposure from UV rays may contribute to some degree of skin cancer in African Americans, the genetic makeup plays the largest part in melanoma diagnoses.
“Melanoma shows up in areas that typically are not exposed to the sun, like the toes, tips of the finger or under fingernails and toenails,” said Dr. Tiffany Alexander, dermatologist, ECU Health. “When identified and treated early, most melanoma cases are curable.”
However, melanoma can spread quickly into the blood and to other organs if not found early, and can even be deadly. Knowing that African Americans are more likely to be impacted by advanced melanoma, Dr. Alexander recommends learning the signs and symptoms and taking early action to detect and treat melanoma in its earliest stages.
“African Americans typically present in a more advanced stage because there is not a lot of awareness of melanoma occurring in African Americans, and the perceived risk of melanoma among African Americans is typically low,” said Dr. Alexander. “Many people also neglect to check areas that are not typically exposed to the sun frequently.”
Completing regular self-exams of areas both exposed to the sun and areas not exposed, like fingers and toes can help catch irregularities early. The ABCDEs of melanoma can help in identifying odd or suspicious moles that may need a second look by a dermatologist.
- A: Asymmetric, irregular shape
- B: Borders that are irregular and not round
- C: Color – a mole that is differently colored than other moles
- D: Diameter more than 6 mm in size
- E: Evolving, growing rapidly, a mole that becomes symptomatic
One of the most common misconceptions is that people with darker skin do not get sunburned, according to Dr. Alexander.
“A common myth I hear from my patients is that people with darker skin do not get sunburned,” said Dr. Alexander. “While those with more melanin in their skin have more protection against the sun, I encourage everyone to wear sunscreen with a minimum 30 SPF, no matter skin color.”
Most importantly, Dr. Alexander says, pay attention to your body.
“Get out of the sun if you feel yourself burning,” said Dr. Alexander. “If there is a mole that fits in the ABCDEs of melanoma or a lesion that is not healing or spots that are bleeding, itchy or painful, see a dermatologist.”
Dermatologists provide professional and thorough skin checks and can identify potentially cancerous areas early, when treatment options are great and the cancer is curable. To find a dermatologist near you, please visit ECUHealth.org/dermatology.