African American couple sunbathing
Skin cancer

Skin Cancer Affects Everyone

No matter how you treated your skin when you were young, you can still work to protect it as you age. That’s one of the key messages from Dr. Susan Y. Chon, Associate Professor, Department of Dermatology, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Women of all races benefit from sun protection. And they all are impacted by the sun; when your skin tans or darkens, at any shade, damage has been done. For Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans and others, darker skin tone to begin with means that skin has more melanin or pigment in it. Chon says it is a common myth that this pigment offers full sun protection: in fact, everyone is damaged by the rays of the sun.

Types of Skin Cancer

There are three types of skin cancer. The most common, accounting for the vast majority of cases, is basal cell carcinoma. Dr. Chon says 80% of this occurs on the head and neck—areas of the body that are nearly constantly exposed to sunlight. When caught early, basal cells can be easily removed, along with nearby tissue, before cancer cells have spread.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer, again occurring on areas of the body that get a lot of time in the sun. Both BCC and squamous cell are more common in light skinned individuals, but can occur in all races.

The third type of skin cancer is melanoma. This is what we talk about with a new mole or one that changes shape or appearance. Melanoma shows up in different locations for women of color—on the soles of their feet and palms of their hands.

“Asians, Indians, African Americans, all present with more advanced stage melanomas because of the myth that they can’t get skin cancer,” says Chon. “Patients might never have had a skin check” and wait a long time before talking to a doctor about skin changes. And for melanoma, the deadliest form of cancer, that has a significant impact.

Promising News

“There’s been a generational change,” says Chon, when it comes to choice of sunning products. Long gone are the days of tanning oil—even today’s parents of teens grew up with access to good sunscreen options.

Today we have many more treatments for melanoma than ever before, included targeted therapies that work with individual genetics. Cancer removals can be invasive—doctors want to get every cell necessary—but tools are more precise than ever, leaving less scarring.

There are two main ways to protect your skin from additional sun damage. Chon emphasizes that everyone needs to do this, no matter her race or shade of skin.

First, seek shade. This is the easiest and most effective way to get out of the sun’s powerful rays. Umbrellas and clothing made with sun protective fabrics, staying indoors during peak hours—there are lots of ways to physically move your body to get into shade.

Your second option is to make shade, using minerals. That’s what sunscreen does. It blocks the sun from being able to reach your skin. But it doesn’t last forever, so applying makeup in the morning with SPF isn’t going to be enough to protect you for a day outside. And that still leaves your ears, neck, chest, arms, and hands naked—soaking up the radiation that causes cell mutations for skin cancer.

Above all, Chon says each of us must be diligent and “take ownership of your skin.” If your primary care physician doesn’t think something is a big deal but a bump or mole seems worrisome, reach out to a dermatologist. You are the one living in this body, responsible for its care. That’s something you can’t expect anyone else to do for you.

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