African Americans and Skin Cancer


According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), more than two million people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the United States every year, and over 24,000 cases (about 2.4%) are diagnosed in African-Americans. Current estimates are that 1 in 5 persons in the US will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime. Even more alarming, skin cancer rates and deaths have been increasing rapidly in the last 30 years.

Many African Americans, and members of other racial/ethnic groups who have a majority of darker skin tones, often think they cannot get skin cancer, but anyone can develop skin cancer, regardless of their skin type. African Americans may not practice sun safety habits as often as others, and as a result, are often diagnosed at an advanced stage of skin cancer.

Understanding our skin

Our skin is the largest organ in your body, and it does a multitude of things to protect us. Our skin 1) covers our organs to protect them from injury, 2) is a barrier to bacteria, viruses and other germs, 3) helps control body temperature, 4) protects our body from ultraviolet (UV) rays, and 4) helps our body make Vitamin D. Our skin has three layers, epidermis (top layer), dermis (middle layer) and the subcutis (deepest layer). Each layer has a unique job, and they all work together to protect our body.

What are the types of skin cancer?

Skin cancers (carcinomas) are generally classified as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or melanoma.  Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are the most common skin cancers. These lesions occur in areas that are exposed to the sun, such as the face, ears, neck, lips, and back of the hands. Basal and squamous cell cancers can be either fast- or slow-growing, but they rarely spread to other parts of the body. If detected and treated early, these types of cancer have a 90% cure rate.

Melanoma, on the other hand, although it accounts for a small percentage of skin cancer, it is far more lethal than basal and squamous cell cancers. In fact, melanoma accounts for more than 75% of all skin cancer deaths and can spread to other organs, such as your liver and lungs. The AAD states that on average, one person in the US dies from Melanoma every hour.

What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

Risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • Unprotected or excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation or sunlight – including indoor tanning (beds, sun lamps) which can increase your risk by up to 75%
  • Having a fair complexion
  • Work-related exposure to coal, tar, creosote, arsenic compounds or radium
  • Having a family history of skin cancer (can increase your risk by up to 10 times)
  • Having multiple or atypical moles
  • Experiencing severe sunburns as a child

Are there ways to reduce the risk of skin cancer?

The best way to reduce the chance of developing skin cancer is to avoid intense sunlight exposure and to practice sun safety. Several guidelines for protection from the sun include:

  • Avoiding the sun between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM
  • Wearing protective clothing when out in the sun
  • Using sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher
  • You should remember to apply generous amounts of sunscreen before you go outside and to reapply after swimming, towel drying, or perspiring
  • The use of sunglasses with 99% to 100% UV absorption provides optimal protection for the eyes and surrounding skin
  • It is important to follow these practices even on cloudy or overcast days, as UV rays travel through the clouds.
  • Avoid indoor tanning – No tanning facility should advertise with wording like “safe”, “no harmful rays” or similar wording, because that is not true.
  • Practice monthly self skin exams to monitor moles/dark pigmented areas and watch for changes as well new growths.

What are the signs of skin cancer?

Understanding the signs and symptoms of skin cancer frequently leads to earlier detection and subsequently a better clinical outcome. You should check your skin regularly.  Common signs of skin cancer include any change in the size or color of a mole or darkly-pigmented growth.  New oozing, bleeding, irritation or change in the appearance of a bump or skin nodule should also prompt concern.  Most skin cancers have very high cure rates when they are caught early, so check with your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms. Many primary care providers will refer you to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin-related health issues, for further diagnosis and treatment.

According to the AAD, you should see a dermatologist if you have anything on your skin that lasts for two weeks and is:

  • Growing
  • Changing Shape
  • Bleeding or Itching

For melanoma specifically, the ABCDEs of moles are recommended by the AAD as when you should see a dermatologist. They are:  A=Asymmetry (one half unlike the other); B=Border (irregular or poorly defined border), C=Color (varies from one area of the mole); D=Diameter (melanomas are usually 6mm or larger when diagnosed); and E=Evolving (looks different from others or is changing in size, shape or color).

The AAD describes looking for any of the above by using the following steps:

  1. Examine your body in a mirror front and back, and both sides with your arms raised
  2. Bend elbows and examine forearms, underarms and palms
  3. Examine the backs of your legs and feet, between your toes, and the soles of your feet
  4. Examine the back of your neck and scalp with a hand mirror
  5. Examine your back and buttocks with a hand mirror.
  6. Ask your partner or a family member to look at areas you cannot see yourself

Although Skin cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancers, and has a high cure rate when caught early, it is important to remember that skin cancer can be deadly so early detection is key!

Do you need further information or have questions or comments about this article? Check out the American Academy of Dermatology’s SPOT Skin Cancer Campaign at and the American Cancer Society at

For more information about the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity or resources in your area, please call toll-free 1-877-530-1824 or visit our website:




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