By Dr. Odinaka Anyanwu
“I won’t get skin cancer – I don’t sunburn!”
“What do I need sunscreen for? The melanin in my skin is enough protection.”
As an African-American woman and a doctor, I hear misconceptions like these repeated over and over by friends and patients alike. Despite all of the literature to the contrary, I’ve found that the biggest skin cancer myth among African Americans is that we’re immune to the disease.
Research suggests that minorities usually end up with a later skin cancer diagnosis and often a more aggressive form. People of darker skin are also more likely to acquire acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM), a type of melanoma that typically affects the palms, nail beds, and the soles of the feet. In fact, reggae legend Bob Marley died from ALM at only 36 years old.
While my interest in skin health began during medical school, my involvement with the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) turned me into a passionate advocate. In volunteering with the MRF, I learned that melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, claims the life of one American every hour of every day — that’s almost 10,000 Americans per year — and it does not discriminate. While the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with melanoma is higher for other racial groups, the risk for African Americans is still one in 1,000 — which is not a small chance.
Through the MRF, I worked side-by-side with patients and family members affected by melanoma, who never expected to be touched by this disease. This experience stimulated a drive in me to become a certified melanoma educator, and in this capacity I have been able to teach my patients, family, and community members about using sunscreen, decreasing tanning and sun exposure, and noticing changes in the skin associated with melanoma.
Although the research indicates melanoma is usually diagnosed later in African Americans, we don’t have to become statistics. With education and common sense there are steps we can take to prevent skin cancer. Skin cancers, including melanoma, are often associated with excessive exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight and tanning beds. No matter the shade of your skin, sunscreen is ALWAYS a necessity! It is true that darker skinned people have skin naturally richer in melanin, which provides some protection against the sun’s harmful rays, but this protection alone is not enough. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen that offers protection against UVA and UVB rays, contains an SPF of 30 or higher, and provides water resistance. And sunscreen should be used year-round, not just in the hottest months of the year.
Prevention is important, but detection is essential as well. Performing skin checks on yourself every month, and visiting your dermatologist annually can help detect melanoma in its earliest stages. Be on the lookout for any poor healing sores or moles that have changed in appearance over time. A helpful mnemonic device when assessing your moles is the ABCDEs of melanoma. If you have noticed any of the changes below, it is imperative to notify your primary care provider or dermatologist right away:
- Asymmetry: If you draw a line down the middle of the mole, one half of the mole should match the other side.
- Border: Blurred, jagged, or irregular borders are a sign that the mole could be cancerous.
- Color: If your mole consists of multiple shades, it’s time to get it checked out.
- Diameter: Moles greater than 6mm — about the size of a pencil eraser — are cause for concern.
- Evolving: Benign moles typically do not change over time. If you’ve noticed any changes in your moles, you should consult your dermatologist.
If you or your healthcare provider see anything suspicious on your skin, don’t ignore it because early detection is key to a better outcome!
As an MRF advocate and melanoma educator, I continually try to raise awareness about skin protection, the importance of increased funding for melanoma research, and the need to limit access to tanning beds for minors. It is imperative that African Americans and all people of color learn they, too, can be affected by melanoma.
Dr. Odinaka Anyanwu is a recent graduate of Ross University School of Medicine. She regularly volunteers with the Melanoma Research Foundation (MRF) and serves as a certified melanoma educator. The MRF aims to support medical research for finding effective treatments and eventually a cure for melanoma, to educate patients and physicians about the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of melanoma, and to act as an advocate for the melanoma community to raise awareness of this disease and the need for a cure. For more information go to the Melanoma Research Foundation’s website or consider participating in one of their Miles for Melanoma 5Ks.