5 Facts People with Dark Skin Should Know About Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is often deadlier when found in people with dark skin, so know your risks
A Black dermatologist examines a Black man's back for signs of skin cancer with a dermatoscope.

Reggae legend Bob Marley was only 36 years old when he died from a rare form of melanoma.

While skin cancer is more common in people with lighter skin, it can also affect people with dark skin — and it’s often found in later, deadlier stages.

It’s important for people of any skin color to take skin cancer seriously and know how to reduce their risks. RUSH Dermatologist Pamela Madu, MD, has some words of advice for people with darker skin. 

1. Other medical conditions or treatments can increase your risk

If you have certain chronic conditions, take medications or have had a medical procedure, then you may have a higher risk of getting skin cancer. Some of these factors that increase skin cancer risk include:

  • Organ transplantation
  • Immunosuppressive medications
  • Albinism
  • Chronic ulcerations
  • Burns
  • Hidradenitis suppurativa
  • Chronic inflammatory conditions, such as discoid lupus, lichen planus and lichen sclerosus

“Patients with darker skin should be aware that they can develop skin cancer, particularly squamous cell carcinoma, if they have one of the above conditions,” Madu says.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer that appears in Black and South Asian people.

2. Sun protection is important for many people with dark skin

Although skin cancer isn’t as common in people with darker skin, there are many cases where sun protection is still important.

“Patients with albinism or a history of organ transplantation and patients on certain immunosuppressive medications should wear sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater daily and practice sun avoidance for skin cancer prevention,” Madu says. “Sunscreen, sun protective clothing and sun avoidance, particularly between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., are important for skin cancer prevention.”

Madu also recommends sun protection for people of color who may have lighter skin tones or a family history of skin cancer.

3. People with darker skin have a lower melanoma survival rate

Even though people with lighter skin are at higher risk, people with darker skin have a lower survival rate for certain types of skin cancer.

There are many possible reasons for this, including unequal access to health care and screenings or lower awareness for rarer conditions.

“In the case of melanoma, which is the deadliest skin cancer, it tends to be diagnosed at a later stage in people with darker skin, which leads to more morbidity and mortality,” Madu says. “This type of melanoma, known as acral lentiginous melanoma, is relatively rare, and rare conditions usually aren’t talked about as much.”

Madu notes that melanoma often presents differently in people with darker skin than in people with lighter skin. For instance, people with darker skin are more likely to see signs of melanoma of the hands and feet, such as irregular moles on the palms or soles or dark lines on the fingernails or toenails. 

It’s important to see a dermatologist as soon as possible if you see these signs of melanoma. 

4. Getting to know your skin helps catch problems early

Checking your skin for anything unusual can help you spot skin cancer early and get treatment. You may also want to have a partner check you if possible.

Madu recommends examining your skin often so you can establish a baseline for what’s normal for you. “Get familiar with your skin,” Madu says. “Look at your hands and feet. Examine your nails. What do they look like?” 

Once you have that baseline, you’ll be able to recognize anything out of the ordinary. Make sure to take note of the following:

  • Moles that are larger than the width of a pencil eraser
  • Asymmetrical moles
  • Moles with irregular borders
  • Moles that have multiple colors
  • Moles that change in size or color, become raised or develop an open sore
  • Sores or lesions that don’t heal
  • Dark streaks on the fingernails or toenails

Any of these can be signs of skin cancer, so see a dermatologist if you spot them. “Schedule an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist,” Madu says. “We are specifically trained to identify the signs of skin cancer, perform a biopsy if needed and recommend the best treatment.”

5. Awareness can save lives

Because skin cancer isn’t as common in people with darker skin, it doesn’t get as much attention. “If a patient is not aware that this is something concerning, they may delay seeing a physician,” Madu says. 

When skin cancer is finally found, it can be at later, deadlier stages if care has been delayed.

“I believe that more awareness can lead to earlier detection and, hopefully, better outcomes,” Madu says. “Being aware that patients with darker skin can develop skin cancer and knowing whether they are at greater risk due to an underlying condition is a great start.”

If you find signs of skin cancer on your body, call RUSH at (888) 352-7874 to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.

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