When it comes to skin cancer, the medical community has made it clear that the Caucasian population is at greater risk than people of color. But this information is creating a dangerous situation for people of color, say researchers, who warn that survival rates are lower in the demographic.
"Everyone is at risk for skin cancer, regardless of race," says board-certified dermatologist Jeremy S. Bordeaux, MD, MPH, FAAD, one of the study authors, in a news release. "Patients with skin of color may believe they aren't at risk, but that is not the case — and when they do get skin cancer, it may be especially deadly."
Using the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results database, researchers at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University looked at close to 97,000 patients diagnosed with melanoma — a malignant tumor associated with the deadliest form of skin cancer — from 1992 to 2009. The scientists found that while Caucasian patients have the highest incidence rate, they also have the highest survival right.
African American patients, on the contrary, had the worst survival rate because the demographic is being diagnosed in later stages when the melanoma is more challenging to treat. The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, also found that African-American patients received the worst prognosis at every stage of melanoma.
Part of the problem, says Bordeaux, is that patients of color might opt against getting medical treatment for tell-tale signs of melanoma because they’re misinformed about being at risk. He also says it could be biological: melanoma might be a more aggressive disease in people of color.
Bordeaux recommends taking preventative measures by wearing sunscreen — a study from the U.K. found ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun to be responsible for 86 percent of melanomas. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. He also says those rich in pigment are more likely to develop skin cancer in uncommon areas like the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, and should examine these areas carefully when looking for marks.
The long-term solution is to conduct more research on melanoma and how it varies between ethnic groups to see why survival rates vary. But, for the time being, the immediate fix is to ensure patients of color are aware of their risk and are getting the medical attention they need.
"Because skin cancer can affect anyone, everyone should be proactive about skin cancer prevention and detection," said Bordeaux. "Don't let this potentially deadly disease sneak up on you because you don't think it can happen to you."