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How Black people can protect their skin from cancer

Credit: American Cancer Society

With California fully reopening and with summer here, many people can hardly wait to spend more time outdoors walking, biking, hiking, camping and swimming after more than a year mainly indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although that is welcome news for families and outdoor enthusiasts, we cannot forget an important fact: spending too much time in the sun and its harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays is hazardous to your health as it can cause skin cancer, a potentially deadly disease.

This is true for all ethnic groups, including the Black community. According to a 2016 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), melanoma, a form of skin cancer that affects all ethnic groups, is more frequently detected in later stages in Black men and women than in any other ethnic group. This can lead to a worse prognosis and higher mortality rates.

The AAD has reported that people with darker skin tones do not receive a diagnosis until the cancer is in its later stages. This tends to be because the symptoms are harder to recognize. Reportedly, the five-year melanoma survival rate for African-Americans is 65 percent, compared with 91 percent for White persons.

“There’s a misconception that people with black or brown skin can tolerate the sun more than other people of different racial backgrounds,” said Dr. Joy M. Twersky, a dermatologist with Kaiser Permanente Southern California. “That’s false. Anyone can get skin cancer, and it’s smart for all of us to protect our skin from UV radiation to lessen our risk.

“It’s important to use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher to better protect our skin, and it should be reapplied as needed, including every 1-2 hours when in the water or when perspiring. It’s important to know that using sunscreen alone isn’t always enough, however. We should also consider taking other steps to protect ourselves.”

The AAD further reports that doctors diagnose around 24 percent of melanoma cases in the regional stage, meaning that cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. As well, physicians tend to diagnose roughly 16 percent of melanoma cases when they are in the “distant-stage” (cancer has spread to distant parts of the body).

Protecting your skin

Twersky offered the following tips to lessen your chance of getting skin cancer:

• Avoid the sun during its peak hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

• Understand that sand, water and snow can reflect 85 percent of the sun’s rays.

• To protect your eyes, wear sunglasses capable of blocking 99 percent of UVA and UVB radiation.

• When possible, wear loose-fitting, long-sleeved clothing to cover much of your skin.

• Wear clothing with the UPF label that helps protect against UV radiation.

• Because their skin is more sensitive, completely shield the skin of babies younger than 6 months from the sun.

“Taking these precautions will help you a great deal in preventing skin cancer,” Twersky said. “Additionally, following these simple tips will also help keep your skin looking healthier.

Checking your skin

It is important to keep an eye out for new spots or growths on your skin that are changing, such as growing, itching, or bleeding, as these could be early signs of skin cancer, and they can occur even in sun-protected places, like the soles of our feet. Use a mirror to examine difficult-to-see areas, especially on the bottoms of feet and between the toes.

Examine areas most likely to develop skin cancer, such as soles of the feet, inside the mouth, the anogenital region, the palms of the hands, and other areas where skin’s pigment is not as dark.

Black persons should also look for a sore that will not heal (or heals and then reappears). Look for a dark spot, growth or darker area of the skin that is bleeding, growing, or changing in size or shape. Also, look for a dark line around or underneath a fingernail or toenail.

With early detection, skin cancer can be treated more easily. That’s why it’s important to regularly check our own skin. If you find something of concern, have your skin checked by a doctor.