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Skin Cancer and African Americans: Answers to your Questions

the National Cancer Institute | 6/9/2010, 11:40 a.m.

As the weather turns warmer, people are beginning to spend more time outdoors. While the sunshine may be enjoyable, it may also be damaging your skin--and even causing cancer. Although African Americans and other individuals of color have a much lower risk for skin cancer than people with fair skin, it is important to know that they are also at risk. The National Cancer Institute and Allan C. Halpern, MD, Chief of Dermatology Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center--an NCI-designated Cancer Center--answer some questions about skin cancer in people of color.

Q: Why should people of color be concerned about skin cancer?
A: Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. In fact, every year more than 1 million people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer. Although African-Americans are less likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer than people with fair skin, they are still at risk. Also, the sun is not the only cause of skin cancer.
Many people may not know that there are several different types of skin cancer. The two most common types of skin cancer are basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer--both of which are known as non-melanoma skin cancer. Squamous cell cancer is the most common form of skin cancer among African-Americans. Most basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers can be cured if found and treated early. However, skin cancer may be more serious in African Americans because it is often diagnosed later, at more advanced stages.

Melanoma skin cancer--a more deadly form of skin cancer--is much less common than non-melanoma skin cancer. Although melanoma is extremely rare in African-Americans, it can be found in unusual locations. In African-Americans, the first sign of melanoma may be an abnormal mole under the nails, on the palms of hands, or on the soles of the feet.

Q: Does darker skin pigmentation provide sun protection?
A: Skin pigmentation is somewhat protective against ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Other factors aside, the darker an individual's skin color, the lower his or her risk for skin cancer. While some people may identify as belonging to a dark-skinned racial/ethnic group, it is important to note that they are still at risk from skin cancer. For example, African Americans with lighter shades of skin will need more sun protection than those with darker skin.

Q: What can people of color do to prevent skin cancer?
A: Protecting your skin and eyes from the sun is the single best way to reduce your risk of skin cancer. Use sunscreen with a broad-spectrum sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 that protects from UVA as well as UVB rays. Reapply every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating. Avoid exposure to the midday sun (between 10 am and 4 pm) when possible.

If you must be outdoors, wear sunglasses that absorb UV radiation, a wide-brimmed hat that shades your ears and neck as well as your face, and long sleeves and pants. It is also important to avoid tanning beds. Finally, be aware of any changes in your skin. If you notice a new mole or other new growth on your skin, changes in the appearance of an old growth on your skin, or a sore that does not heal you should see your doctor.

Q: If someone does not "burn" when in the sun, is he/she still at risk for skin cancer?
A: Yes. Even if an individual does not burn, exposure to UV radiation can increase his or her risk of skin cancer. In addition, although the majority of skin cancers are sun related, there are other causes of skin cancer and skin cancer can occur in areas hidden from the sun. Everyone, regardless of skin color, should watch for changes on the palms, soles, and other areas of skin that are not often exposed to the sun.

Q: What else do people of color need to know about sun exposure?
A: While sun exposure has the potential to cause skin damage, it may also have benefits. In particular, vitamin D is made naturally in the body when the skin is exposed to UV radiation. However, people with dark skin make less vitamin D. People with very dark skin may want to discuss vitamin D supplements with their doctor. They should not increase or rely on sun exposure.

Q: Where can people obtain more information about the sun and skin cancer?
A: For more information, you may visit the National Cancer Institute's Web site at www.cancer.gov. You can order free publications at the site. You may also speak with a Cancer Information Specialist by calling toll-free 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or by using the LiveHelp online chat feature at www.cancer.gov/help.

NCI leads the National Cancer Program and the NIH effort to dramatically reduce the burden of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers.

For more information about cancer, please visit the NCI Web site at http://www.cancer.gov or call NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).