Skin Cancer In African Americans: Why You Shouldn't Ignore It
It's true that skin cancer in African Americans isn't nearly as common as it is in other ethnicities. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, it comprises just one to two percent of all cancers among blacks. But with less than half of melanomas in African Americans diagnosed at an early stage (compared to 74 percent in Hispanics and 84 percent in Caucasians) and survival rates hovering around 77 percent (versus 91 percent for Caucasians), doctors caution that it's not a disease that should be ignored.
In one of the most notable cases of skin cancer in the black community, reggae legend Bob Marley discovered a type of malignant melanoma under the nail of one of his toes, an experience documented in the Kevin Macdonald film "Marley," released last month. The cancer would ultimately spread to Marley's lungs and brain, causing his death nearly 31 years ago on May 11, 1981.
"I've long used [Bob Marley] in my conversations with patients," says board certified dermatologist Brooke Jackson, founder and medical director of the Skin Wellness Center of Chicago. She added that even doctors tend to minimize the risk that skin cancer poses to people with dark skin.
"Unfortunately a lot of doctors are still of this thought process that, 'Yes, we've gotten the message across to the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world -- all the fair-skinned people, they get it. They know that they're at higher risk." The myth lies, however, among black patients and their doctors, Brooks says.
In honor of National Skin Cancer Awareness Month and the anniversary of Bob Marley's death, Dr. Jackson debunks some of the most common misconceptions about cancer in dark skin, shares her close encounters with the disease and her best advice on how to stay protected.
"The patient doesn't ever think that that bleeding, growing thing that's not healing could possible be a skin cancer, because black people don't get skin cancer," Jackson says. "And the doctor is probably a) not discussing sun protection with them; b) not doing full skin exams, because you're less likely to get it; and c) not having those same conversations that we often have with the fair-skinned people."
Until the medical community catches on, Dr. Jackson suggests you do due diligence in screening yourself.
"On your birthday, check out your birthday suit," she says. "Take a look at every crack and crevice -- in your armpit, in your groin, in your butt, everywhere -- and make sure you know what's there."
Most people don't get new moles after the age of 25 or 26, Jackson says, so if you're 45 and discover something you've never seen before or a change in a mole you've always had, get it checked out.
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