Skin Cancer in People of Color

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on June 23, 2014

As a person of color, you might question whether skin cancer ought to be one of your top health concerns. If you're African-American, you may not even think you can getskin cancer. But you’d be surprised.

"Anyone can get skin cancer," says Lisa Chipps, MD, director of dermatologic surgery at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. It is less common in people of color, but it’s often more serious. That's because it's usually found later, when it's harder to treat.

If you know what to look for and how to protect yourself, you can prevent it or catch it early.

The three most common skin cancers are:

Getting too much ultraviolet (UV) light is linked to all of these cancers. But it is just one cause and may not even be a factor in melanoma in people of color. Some other things that can raise your risk of skin cancer are:

  • Skin conditions that lead to scarring or chronic swelling and redness, like discoid lupus
  • Radiation therapy
  • An infection that doesn't heal
  • Injury, such as a bad bruise or burn
  • Having moles, especially on the palms, soles of your feet, and mouth

Among people of color, African-Americans or Asian-Indians are more likely to get this type of cancer.

It's usually curable, but it's often more serious in African-Americans. It can spread to your lymph nodes, which are part of your immune system, and organs.

If you're African-American, it's most likely to show up in your legs, bottom, or private parts.

This skin cancer is more common in Hispanic, Chinese, and Japanese people than in African-Americans. It's strongly linked to too much sun.

It grows slowly and is very unlikely to spread to other parts of your body. In brown skin, it's most likely to show up on the head or neck.

The skin cancer that killed reggae legend Bob Marley, this is less common but also more deadly, especially in African-Americans. About 52% of African-Americans and 26% of Hispanics find out they have it when it has already spread, compared with16% of white people. "By that time, the survival rate is usually much worse," says Brian Johnson, MD, a dermatologic surgeon in Norfolk, VA, and a spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation.

"The biggest risk factor is a first-degree relative with melanoma," Chipps says. If a parent, sibling, or child of yours has melanoma, your chance of getting it is 50% higher.

If you are African-American, Asian, Hawaiian, or Native American, melanoma is most likely to show up in your mouth, under your nails, or on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet. If you're Hispanic, it’ll usually be on your feet if you're dark-skinned and on your trunk or legs if you're lighter-skinned.

Brown skin does give you a leg up on skin protection. It has more melanin, the pigment that gives you color. Melanin helps protect against sun damage. But alone, it’s not enough:

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30.
  • Don’t go in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Avoid getting sunburned.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses that filter out UV radiation.
  • Don’t use tanning beds, which make your chances of melanoma nearly four times greater.

Examine your skin head to toe every month. See a dermatologist if:

  • The shape, size, or color of a new or existing mole changes.
  • You have brown spots on your hands, soles, or under your nails.
  • A cut or wound bleeds, oozes, or crusts, doesn't heal, or lasts longer than a month.
  • You have anal or genital warts.
  • You have an ulcer, growth, or sore that isn't healing near skin that is scarred or has been inflamed, especially on your legs. Some low-grade tumors may look like keloids, which are harmless areas of excessive tissue healing from wounds.

Have your skin checked once a year by a dermatologist. "A primary care doctor may not be as likely to notice a mole on the bottom of your foot," Johnson says. "A dermatologist can find things sooner, biopsy them quickly, and take care of them early."

Show Sources


American Academy of Dermatology: "Skin cancer: Tips for preventing and finding."

Lisa Chipps, MD, dermatologist, Beverly Hills; director of dermatologic surgery, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, CA.

Brian Johnson, MD, dermatologist, Norfolk, VA.; spokesperson, Skin Cancer Foundation.

MD Anderson Cancer Center: "Sun Damage – Skin Cancer Protection."

National Cancer Institute: "African Americans Can Get Skin Cancer: This Summer, Protect Yourself."

Skin Cancer Foundation: "Skin Cancer and Skin of Color," Skin Cancer Facts," "Melanoma Causes and Risk Factors," Prevention Guidelines."

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