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Dark skin needs protection from sun, too

A few years ago, I had an African-American woman in her early 30s come to see me for a rash on her legs. I looked at her feet and saw an irregular, jet-black mole on her heel. I was immediately concerned and asked how long this mole had been there. She casually told me "a few years" and was unaware that this could be a serious health problem. It probably didn't even cross her mind -- in contrast to my white patients who are always extremely concerned about new moles. I sent her to a surgeon to have it removed.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. We caught this potentially dangerous mole early. It was categorized as a "severely dysplastic nevus," which simply means it had some atypical changes but not enough to be a melanoma. However, both the surgeon and I believed that if a few more years or even months had passed, my young patient had a good chance of developing a melanoma.

The common misperception that naturally bronzed skin is immune to the threat of skin cancer is a dangerous one.

Within the U.S., minorities are less likely to be checked, diagnosed and treated for skin cancer in its early detection stages. Because of this, those with darker complexion have a greater risk of dying from skin cancer than their light-skinned counterparts. I cannot stress this enough. Skin cancer is not just a white person's disease.

We perpetuate this urban legend within our growing communities of color by assuming that our dark skin does not need SPF protection, that our dark skin does not need to be checked and that we can cheat skin cancer-related deaths. However, this false assumption has become a silent killer with deadly consequences.

Can people with dark skin get skin cancer? Well, yes.

As a dermatologist, I always remind my patients that Bob Marley died of metastatic melanoma so that they remember that anyone is susceptible. Skin cancer can occur in any skin type and color. However, education is the key to catching skin cancer early so, as the summer gets into full swing here is a quick skin cancer 101:

There are three types of skin cancer:

-- Basal cell carcinoma, which is the least common in African American skin.

-- Squamous cell carcinoma, which can look like a rough, thick, scaly bump, is more common than basal cell carcinoma within darker skin tones and is most frequently found on the legs.

-- Melanoma, which is the most dangerous form of skin cancer and occurs in all skin types. It looks like a dark mole that is irregular in color or shape. Melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, but in darker skinned people it is most commonly found on the hands and feet.

Melanoma can be cured if caught early, but in later stages it is very serious and difficult to treat. Unfortunately, due to the lack of screening, patients with skin of color often are diagnosed with advanced stage melanoma. In one study, investigators found that, of patients with melanoma, 18% of Hispanics and 26% of African Americans presented with advanced stage melanoma. This is compared to only 12% of white patients.

This delay in melanoma detection also contributes to lower melanoma survival rates in people with skin of color. In another study, the five-year survival rate in African-Americans was 58.8% compared with 84.8% in white people.

These statistics are shocking and also totally preventable.

Early detection is essential to improve melanoma survival rates. To catch melanoma in its early stages, it is important to go to the dermatologist if you have a new suspicious mole.

New or unusual moles on the hands and feet are especially concerning in people with skin of color and should be checked by a dermatologist. Also pay attention to your existing moles and see a dermatologist if you notice significant changes. Early detection is key when dealing with skin cancer so I urge anyone to not delay if a suspicious mole is spotted.

This is certainly a relevant concern as the face of America is changing. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation's Hispanic population is 50.5 million and accounts for more than half of the country's growth over the past decade. The African-American population is 42 million people and accounts for 14% of the population.

The need for proper education and skin cancer screenings is crucial. Increased awareness this will ensure that the African American and Hispanic population doesn't fall victim to a very preventable disease.

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 Last Modified 9/25/14