Skin cancer in people of color

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People of color: This term refers to diverse skin colors and includes people of African, Asian, Latino, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Native American descent.

People of all colors, including those with brown and black skin, get skin cancer. Even if you never sunburn, you can get skin cancer.

When skin cancer develops in people of color, it’s often in a late stage when diagnosed. This can be deadly when the person has melanoma, a type of skin cancer that can spread quickly. Treatment for any type of skin cancer can be difficult in the late stages.

The good news is you can find skin cancer early. Found early, most skin cancers, including melanoma, can be cured.

There’s also a lot you can do to reduce your risk of getting skin cancer.

Ask the person who cuts your hair to tell you if you have a growth or odd-looking spot on your scalp.
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How people of color can find skin cancer

Because skin cancer begins on the skin, this cancer can be found early. The best way to find skin cancer is to check your own skin.

Here’s what dermatologists recommend for people who have skin of color:

What you can do
Skin self-exam: This is a full body exam of your skin
What you need
A full-length mirror and a partner or handheld mirror
When
Monthly
What to look for

People who have skin of color want to look for the following:
  • Dark spot, growth, or darker patch of skin that is growing, bleeding, or changing in any way
  • Sore that won’t heal — or heals and returns
  • Sore that has a hard time healing, especially if the sore appears in a scar or on skin that was injured in the past
  • Patch of skin that feels rough and dry
  • Dark line underneath or around a fingernail or toenail
How to check your skin
  • Look at your skin from head to toe
  • Examine hard-to-see areas like the top of your head and back by using a handheld mirror or asking a partner to check these areas.
Where to look closely
  • Check places that get little sun — the bottoms of your feet, toenails, lower legs, groin, and buttocks.
  • Spend time looking at the skin on your head, neck, and hands. Be sure to look inside your mouth, examine your palms, and check for dark lines around and underneath your fingernails.
What to do if you find something See a dermatologist. You can find a dermatologist near you by using Find a Dermatologist.
Why this is important Performed monthly, you can find changes to the spots on your skin, which could be skin cancer. When treated early, treatment often cures skin cancer. In the later stages, skin cancer can turn deadly and treatment can be difficult.

Pictures of skin cancer in people of color

The following pictures show some examples of what skin cancer can look like in people of color.

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Skin cancer in Asians: The most common sign of skin cancer in Asians is often a roundish, raised brown or black growth. Skin cancer also shows up in other ways, so be sure to check your skin carefully.
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  Photo courtesy of Calvin O. McCall, MD, FAAD
Photo courtesy of Calvin O. McCall, MD, FAAD

Skin cancer in blacks: In people with brown or black skin, skin cancer often develops on parts of the body that get less sun like the bottom of the foot, lower leg, and palms. Skin cancer may also begin under a nail, around the anus, or on the genitals. It’s important to check these areas.
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Skin cancer in Latinos: Skin cancer can appear on the skin in many ways, as you can see in the following photos. If you have a growth on your skin that is getting bigger, a patch of scaly skin, or a dark streak under or around a nail, make an appointment to see a dermatologist.

How people of color can reduce their skin cancer risk

Dermatologists in the United States tell their patients with skin of color to reduce their risk of getting skin cancer by doing the following:

  1. Seek shade whenever possible. The sun causes many skin cancers.

  2. Wear clothing that protects your skin from the sun. A wide-brimmed hat can shade your face and neck. You also want to wear shoes that cover the entire foot. African Americans often develop skin cancer on their feet.

  3. Wear sunscreen. Yes, people of color should wear sunscreen. Dermatologists recommend that people of color use sunscreen that has:
  • Broad-spectrum protection
  • SPF 30 or greater
  • Water resistance

  1. Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. You want to apply sunscreen to skin that will be bare. Be sure to apply sunscreen every day — even on cloudy days.

  2. When outdoors, reapply sunscreen. You want to reapply:
  • Every 2 hours
  • After sweating or getting out of the water

  1. Never use tanning beds or sunlamps. These emit harmful UV rays, which can cause skin cancer.

When you protect your skin from the sun, you also reduce your risk of getting melasma (patches of darker skin). These patches are NOT skin cancer. They are NOT harmful, but many people dislike the way they look.
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Make a difference: Start checking your skin today

People of color have a lower risk than whites of getting skin cancer. But they still have a risk. Monthly skin self-exams can help you find skin cancer early when a cure is likely.

Additional related resources


Images

Images 1: Thinkstock
Images 3 – 11 used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology:

  • Images 3, 4, 9, 10, and 11: J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014;70(4):748-62. • Images 5, 6, 7, and 8: J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006;55(5):741-60.
  • Image 12: Image used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.

References
Agbai ON, MD, Buster K, et al. “Skin cancer and photoprotection in people of color: A review and recommendations for physicians and the public.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2014;70(4):748-62.

American Academy of Dermatology. “Dermatologists provide recommendations for preventing and detecting skin cancer in people of color.” News release issued February 4, 2014.

Gloster HM and Neal K. “Skin cancer in skin of color.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2006;55(5):741-60.