Now that the days are longer and the weather is warm, the amount of time spent playing and working in the sun increases — and so does the risk of skin cancer.
Skin cancer impacts everyone from fair skin to dark skin. While some African Americans believe their dark skin tone is protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays, it’s just one of the myths surrounding skin cancer.
In fact, skin cancer, especially its most deadly form melanoma, can be more dangerous to African Americans because it often goes unnoticed until the cancer reaches the late stage.
May is Skin Cancer Awareness month, and health experts debunk some common myths.
Myth: Skin cancer isn’t dangerous.
Truth: Skin cancer can be just as dangerous as other types of cancer. Anita Day, co-founder and executive director of the skin cancer education and research advocate nonprofit Outrun the Sun, said people often dismiss skin cancer because it is less noticeable and isn’t located in a vital organ. However, skin cancer can spread across the surface of skin and penetrate below it. Once it penetrates the skin, the cancerous cells can reach the lymph nodes and vital organs such as the heart, brain or lungs. This happens so often that one American dies of melanoma every hour, according to Day.
Even if skin cancer is not fatal, it can be life altering. The surgery to remove skin cancer leaves noticeable scars. If the cancer develops on the nose or ears, one of the most common places it occurs, doctors remove a section of the body part.
“We’ve seen people who have had almost their entire ears removed, or their noses, because of skin cancer,” Day said, “Even if that doesn’t mean it’s life threatening, it certainly changes a person’s life.”
Myth: Dark skin tones are safe from cancer.
Truth: This is somewhat true. Natraj Reddy Ammakkanavar, an oncologist with Community Hospital Oncology, said African Americans are three to five times less likely to develop skin cancer than Caucasians, but safer does not mean safe. African Americans have a higher mortality rate from skin cancer because Black patients and their doctors frequently don’t check for skin abnormalities. Therefore, African Americans often do not discover they have skin cancer until its late stage.
“People with dark skin are not spared,” Ammakkanavar said. “… Mortality and morbidity are much higher in this population because of this myth.”
In addition, Day added melanoma that occurs beneath toenails, fingernails and the bottoms of feet are more common in African Americans than Caucasians. Therefore, dermatologists recommend African Americans take the same precautions as Caucasians despite the lesser chance of developing skin cancer.
Myth: Apply sunscreen before going outside and you’ll be fine.
Truth: According to Day, too many people apply sunscreen incorrectly. People should use an ounce, enough to fill a shot glass, of SPF 30 or above sunscreen across all exposed parts of the body. Spray-on sunscreen can be substituted if sprayed on the entire body and rubbed in, Day said.
In addition, sunscreen should be applied more than once per day. The American Society of Dermatology recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours, especially if swimming or sweating as the protection wears off.
Besides sunscreen, other ways to protect from the sun include wearing hats with wide brims, sunglasses and long sleeve shirts with dark colors. However, the most important precaution is visiting a dermatologist once a year.
“We teach people that skin cancer is highly preventable,” Day said. “Not all cancers are preventable. This is one we can really affect if we change our behaviors and protect or skin from UV radiation.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.
PROTECT YOUR SKIN
If you develop an abnormal skin growth, check the ABCDEs of melanoma. Growths that match one or more of these characteristics might be a sign of melanoma and require a trip to the doctor.
Asymmetry: One side of the growth looks different than another.
Border: The edges of the growth are jagged.
Color: It has an unusual color such as red or bluish brown.
Diameter: The growth is larger than a pencil eraser.
Evolving: It is going through changes such as growing or bleeding.