Melanoma & Skin of Color
Melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer and represents about 5% of all cancer diagnoses in the United States each year. While rates for many cancers are decreasing, new cases of melanoma are rising rapidly, especially among younger people. In fact, cases of melanoma have tripled in the last 30 years. And while People of Color are diagnosed with melanoma less often, they are up to four times more likely to be diagnosed with advanced melanoma and 1.5 times more likely to die from the disease.
To learn more about the risks of melanoma among people of color, tips for sun-safety and detection, and well as additional information on acral melanoma (the melanoma most likely to impact African Americans), please continue reading.
Yes, People of Color Can Get Melanoma (Skin Cancer)
According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk of developing melanoma is 1 in 1,000 for Blacks, 1 in 167 for Hispanics, and 1 in 38 for whites.1 While the chance of developing melanoma among People of Color is less than among whites, melanoma does occur across all races. The idea that People of Color do not get melanoma is a myth – and stands in the way of raising awareness of melanoma, and other skin cancers, among People of Color.
Melanoma May Look Different Among People of Color
Cutaneous melanoma, the most common type, is caused by cell damage from ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. People of Color are far less likely to develop this type of melanoma than their white counterparts.2
However, People of Color still do develop melanoma caused by UV light. They are also at risk for developing rare melanoma subtypes not caused by the sun, such as acral, mucosal, and uveal. Of these, People of Color are most likely to develop acral melanoma. Acral melanoma forms in places that are not typically exposed to the sun, such as the palms, soles of feet, or under finger or toenails.
Melanoma is Found Later Among People of Color
While melanoma occurs less frequently among People of Color, when it does occur, it is diagnosed at a more advanced stage of disease.3 When found and treated early, most melanomas are curable. However, as melanoma progresses it becomes far harder to treat. Researchers believe this happens for two reasons. First, because People of Color perceive their own risk to be low, they may delay getting medical care. Second, doctors are also more likely to overlook melanoma among People of Color or may not examine non-sun exposed areas for signs of acral or mucosal. This is because some doctors may also assume their patients of color are at a reduced risk of melanoma and are unfamiliar with acral melanoma.4
Later Diagnosis = Lower Survival
When melanoma is caught early, it is highly curable. However, as melanoma spreads throughout the body it becomes more difficult to treat. A recent study of 649 people showed that 32% of Black patients were diagnosed with Stage 3 or Stage 4 disease, while only 13% of white patients were similarly diagnosed at such a late stage.5 Advanced stage at diagnosis leads to worse outcomes and a shortened life span.6
Skin Checks are Important for People of Color, Too
A regular self-exam, that includes areas like the soles of the feet, in-between toes, palms of hands, and nail beds is recommended for everyone. If you see something that concerns you, SAY SOMETHING either because it meets one of the ABCDEs of melanoma or just stands out. Talk to your doctor or see a dermatologist.
If You Are Diagnosed with Melanoma – Take it Seriously
Melanoma, regardless of stage, is a serious diagnosis. Advocating for prompt treatment can save your life. Surgery is the most common approach to treat melanoma. Studies show that Black Americans are far less likely to receive surgery for their melanomas compared with Caucasians, even though it improves survival. Even when People of Color get appropriate treatment, they often experience delays.7
Melanin isn't Enough to Protect You
Melanin, a pigment produced in the skin responsible for skin color and tone, naturally provides some protection from UV light. The darker your natural skin tone the more melanin you have. However, even among people with very dark skin, melanin still isn’t enough protection from the dangerous effects of the sun!
Sun Safety is Still Important for People of Color
While People of Color are less at risk for melanoma caused by the sun, sun-safe habits are still important. That’s because, in addition to causing skin cancer, UV light also damages skin in other ways. Sunburn, premature aging, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation are all caused by cellular damage from the sun.
If you are concerned about vitamin D levels, supplements are an easy and safe way to ensure you are getting enough! Learn more about melanoma prevention here.
Test Drive Sunscreens Until You Find One That Works for You
Finding a sunscreen that you feel good about using daily can be even more difficult for People of Color. That’s because some sunscreens can leave skin with an unflattering skin color. In addition to meeting MRA’s 3 rules for sunscreen, we suggest looking for a sunscreen that describes itself as sheer, ultra-sheer, or invisible. In general, chemical sunscreens – that don’t include zinc or titanium dioxide – may be a better option to avoid the white or purple cast. Remember: the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use every day!
Less is Known About Acral Melanoma
As a rare subtype, far less is known about what causes acral melanoma. For example, we know that cutaneous melanoma is caused by UV light from the sun, but we still don’t know why acral melanoma forms. Fortunately, despite the many research gaps, acral melanoma responds better to current checkpoint immunotherapies than other rare melanoma subtypes, but not as well as melanoma caused by the sun. As the largest non-profit funder of melanoma research, including research into rare melanoma subtypes, MRA is leading the way to accelerate research and improve outcomes for people diagnosed with rare melanomas.
If you, or someone you love, are diagnosed with melanoma – know that you aren’t alone. MRA’s Melanoma > Exchange, is a free online discussion group and support community. Through the Melanoma > Exchange, anyone touched by melanoma can find support, ask questions, and build community. Explore the Melanoma > Exchange here.