Regardless of Color, Skin Cancer Can Happen to You

Protect yourself against the most common form of cancer with these tips

What do Hugh Jackman, Diane Keaton, Anderson Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Khloe Kardashian, and Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese have in common? The surprising answer is skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer with roughly 5.3 million new cases each year, meaning one in five people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with skin cancer before age 70.

In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined. Given these statistics, most likely there is someone in your life who has been impacted by skin cancer.

More than 90 percent of skin cancer cases are linked to UV exposure and while individuals with fair complexions and features are the most at risk, skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of color.

Need proof? Look no further than Bob Marley. You may be surprised to learn that the Jamaican singer, musician, and songwriter died from melanoma at the age of 36.

When a dark spot appeared under his toenail, Marley attributed it to a recent soccer injury. Unfortunately, it was a form of skin cancer called acral lentiginous melanoma that often becomes aggressive because it is detected later than other melanomas.

While most melanomas are caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds, this type of skin cancer develops in areas not commonly exposed to the sun, such as under nails, on the soles of the feet, or palms of the hands. While this form is rare, it is the most common form of melanoma in people of color.

The American Academy of Dermatologists states that patients with skin of color are less likely than Caucasian patients to survive melanoma due to the lower rates of routine screenings for skin cancer that lead to a later stage diagnosis when the cancer is difficult to treat.

Aside from skin tone, other factors also affect your risk of damage from UV light, including:

  • Spending a lot of time outdoors or work indoors all week and then get intense sun exposure on weekends
  • Taking medicines that affect your immune system or make your skin more sensitive to sunlight
  • Having a medical condition that weakens your immune system, such as infection with HIV
  • Having had an organ transplant
  • Having certain autoimmune diseases, such as lupus

It is a common fallacy to think sun protection is only necessary during summer days spent on the lake, at the beach, or poolside. Sun exposure is cumulative and it happens every time you are in the sun.

The easiest way to protect yourself from skin cancer is staying in the shade. When you are in the sun, though, the best line of defense is to wear sunscreen. Yet, 63 percent of African American adults never use sunscreen and only 1 out of every 10 teenagers reported wearing sunscreen regularly when outside for more than an hour on a sunny day.

If you plan on spending time outdoors, here are action steps you can take for sun protection, regardless of your skin color:

  • Do not burn. Nearly 50 percent of 18-39 year olds report getting at least one sunburn during the year. Even a single sunburn exponentially increases your risk. Remember, people of color can sunburn and develop skin cancer from UV damage, too.
  • Avoid sun tanning and tanning beds.
  • Generously apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher 15 minutes before going out. Be sure to reapply every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating.
  • Wear protective clothing such as a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt, or pants. Be aware that covering up doesn’t block out all UV rays. If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through, too.
  • Seek shade between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest. If you are unsure how strong the sun’s rays are, use the shadow test: if your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun’s rays are the strongest, and it’s important to protect yourself.
  • Check the UV index to prevent overexposure.
  • Perform regular skin self-exams to detect skin cancer early, when it’s most treatable.
  • Remember your ABCDEs: any spot that appears Asymmetrical, has an irregular Border, has an uneven Color, has a Diameter larger than a pea, and is Evolving should be checked out by a dermatologist.