The summer sun is coming, and boy, how we do love it. We love to bask in it. We love to play in it. And our brown skin protects us from its harmful rays.
Or does it?
Throughout generations, we’ve probably heard that because of the melanin in our skin, we don’t need sunscreen or have to worry about skin cancer, but this is a half-truth and a dangerous myth. While melanin does give us a natural SPF, protecting us somewhat from the sun, African Americans are not exempt from skin cancer. We must protect ourselves from sun damage just like everyone else.
There are several ways that skin cancer can form, but the majority, according to Dr. Bruce Wayne Porterfield, a medical oncologist with Arizona Oncology, happen because of ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The sun damages the skin, thus increasing the risk of developing skin cancer.
Black people are not immune to this process.
“UVA light can also increase the risk of developing skin cancers as well. This is typically administered in the form of treatment for skin conditions such as psoriasis and also through tanning bed lighting,” explains Porterfield.
Other risk factors for skin cancer? Dr. Maral Skelsey, director of the Dermatologic Surgery Center in Washington, D.C., warns that “patients who have a nonhealing ulceration wound; scars from lupus, radiation; or a suppressed immune system due to a medical condition such as lymphoma, an organ transplant or HIV are also at a higher risk of developing skin cancer.”
But how do you know if you have skin cancer? There are obvious signs, including “a change in color or size of a lesion, moles that develop irregular borders, new lesions on the skin and ulceration lesions that fail to heal well,” says Porterfield.
“It appears as a rough or scaly spot that doesn’t heal. Many times this is an area that can be misdiagnosed as eczema,” says Skelsey.
The second most common is basal cell.
“This is located on the head and neck and shows up as a small bump that can be the same color as your skin and not necessarily dark. They are pearly, pink or red and bleed on their own, heal and start up again. Basal cells can look like a new scar or skin ulceration,” Skelsey continues.
The least common type of skin cancer—but also the most dangerous—within the African-American community is melanoma.
“This can show up in the nails or bottom of the foot as a dark streak or dark patch. This type of cancer is not raised,” explains Skelsey.
African Americans should keep a close watch on their skin, especially the parts the sun often does not even shine on, such as “nonpigmented” places like “the soles of the feet, palms of the hands, lips, mouth and nail beds,” says Porterfield.
For those who have already had skin cancer, it is important to check to see if there is any spread. Skelsey encourages “checking the lymph nodes in the armpits for swelling.” Another tip: If you have a family member who has had skin cancer, you should get a full body exam and eye exam by a doctor.
"They can look inside and conduct an exam behind the eye to see if there are any spots of melanoma,” Skelsey said.
And if there is a questionable sign of potential skin cancer, you should see the doctor immediately. While black people don’t get skin cancer often, when they do, it is most deadly.
“There is a disturbing issue with the mortality rate of skin cancer within people of color because the diagnosis is late. It is important to get checked by a dermatologist,” advises Dr. Skelsey.
So how do you catch cancer early? You have to start conducting self-checks at home. Porterfield suggests checking your skin every six to eight weeks and either using a mirror or getting assistance from someone to check less-visible areas, like the back, waistline, scalp and backs of the ears. If possible, have the same person assist you each time, because he or she will become familiar with the variations in your skin.
In assessing the skin, remember to use the ABCDE method for detecting any of the following abnormalities:
- A: asymmetry, where one side of the lesion looks different from the other side;
- B: borders that are irregular or raised;
- C: color changes within the lesion, since most noncancerous lesions have more-uniform pigment;
- D: diameter greater than a pencil eraser or evidence that it is growing;
- E: evolving, such as a mole or lesion growing rougher or thicker or becoming ulcerated or bleeding.
If you notice any of these changes, go to the doctor.
Other protective measures include using a daily broad-spectrum SPF of 30 and wearing hats and sunglasses.
“Invest in UV-protective films for your car. The UV rays penetrate through the car window. I see more cases of skin cancer showing on the left side of the face due to incidental sun exposure,” explains Skelsey.
Children should “apply sunscreen 20 minutes before going outside and two hours after being exposed to the sun. If they are swimming, reapply after they dry off,” she continues.
So even if you’re brown, you still have to worry about protecting your skin. Take care of yourself and your family this summer because, unlike people who throw out your résumé because your name “sounds black,” skin cancer doesn’t discriminate.
Yvelette Stines is a journalist and author. Her book Vernon the Vegetable Man encourages children to choose healthy lifestyle habits. Stines’ blog, Calming Corners, motivates readers to live a calm and healthy lifestyle. She holds an M.S. in holistic nutrition and an M.Ed. in education. Follow her on Twitter.