Dark-skinned people produce more melanin — the pigment that gives skin its color — than Caucasians. Melanin helps block damaging ultraviolet rays from the sun and from artificial light sources such as tanning beds, giving people of color greater protection against skin cancer than whites. But they still are susceptible.
That’s what Betty Jordan, a retired Metro computer network engineer, along with many other African Americans, thought. So she was shocked five years ago to learn that the quarter-size dark spot on her left foot was acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM), an aggressive cancer that disproportionately afflicts African Americans and other dark-skinned people. “I never paid any attention to it until a friend urged me to see a doctor,’’ she says. “The area was hard to see, and it never occurred to me to get serious about it.’’
Fortunately, it was caught early and removed. The prognosis is excellent for Jordan.
But this is not typically the case for dark-skinned people who develop ALM or other skin cancers. Because they often assume they are not at risk, their cancers tend to be diagnosed at a more advanced stage, and patients often face a bleaker outcome.
“It’s true that the vast majority of melanomas occur in fair-skinned people, but it’s important to know that dark-skinned people can get skin cancer, too,’’ says Maral Skelsey, a surgeon and skin cancer specialist who heads the Georgetown University Medical Center’s dermatologic surgery center. “They often are dismissed by their general physicians in terms of risk. I hear it so often: ‘No one told me I could get skin cancer.’ ’’