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Skin Cancer: Blind to Your Skin Color

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni
LIUNA General
and LHSFNA Labor
Armand E. Sabitoni

It’s not surprising that many people think skin cancer is a disease that only Caucasians can get. After all, advertisements for sunscreen and other sun protection products seldom feature African Americans and other people of color. And when was the last time you saw anything that mentioned other skin cancer risks?

“Most of these promotions paint a false picture. Anyone can get skin cancer and not just from the sun,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “And while skin cancer isn’t as common among people with darker complexions, it tends to be more serious when it is diagnosed. Lack of awareness about skin cancer risk makes it more likely the disease will be discovered at a later stage when it’s harder to treat.”

Daily use of sunscreen and other sun protection is essential for everyone. So are monthly self-exams of the skin at home and annual skin checks by a dermatologist. Awareness that overexposure to sunlight isn’t the only reason why skin cancer develops is also important. The disease can appear in scars, from exposure to radiation and chemicals like arsenic and from taking anti-rejection drugs used in organ transplants. Genetics can also increase risk.

Skin Cancer and Skin Color

Darker complexions and racial background can actually make certain forms of skin cancer more likely to develop. For example, when African Americans and other people with darker pigmentation including Latinos, Native Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders develop melanoma, their genetic backgrounds make it more likely to be acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM). Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer and ALM is particularly aggressive. (ALM does develop in Caucasians, but it is rare.)

Unlike most other melanomas, basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, ALM typically appears on areas that are not routinely exposed to the sun. The palms of the hands, soles of the feet, genitals, mucous membranes and under nails are common spots. ALM is the skin cancer that killed reggae legend Bob Marley. Marley died within five years of the disease first appearing under a toenail. At the time, it was initially thought to be a slow-to-heal injury from playing soccer.

Between the U.S. and Canada, more than 80,000 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed this year, and the disease will kill more than 10,000. While most of these instances will be linked to sun exposure and to people who are Caucasian (the American Cancer Society says one in 40 Caucasians will develop melanoma compared to one in 1,000 African Americans), the long-term outlook is worse among African Americans and other people with darker pigmentation. Their five-year survival rate for melanoma is only 73 percent, compared with 91 percent for Caucasians, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Check for warning signs of skin cancer (including ALM). See a dermatologist if:

  • The shape, size or color of a new or existing mole changes.
  • You have brown spots or streaks on your hands, soles or under your nails.
  • A cut or wound oozes, crusts, doesn’t heal or lasts longer than a month.

Reduce your risk for other skin cancers. Protect yourself in the sun:

  • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if you are sweating or after swimming.
  • Wear protective clothing and eyewear that block UV radiation.
  • When possible, stay out of direct sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Be aware of reflective surfaces where you work or play such as concrete, sand, snow and water.
  • Check your medications to see if any make you more sensitive to sunlight.

People of color are not naturally protected from skin cancer. Everyone is at risk. Everyone needs to take precautions.

The LHSFNA’s Sun Sense Plus program can help Laborers learn how to protect themselves against skin cancer and heat stress. Sun Sense Plus 2016 educational materials and products can be ordered by visiting the Fund’s Sun Sense Plus 2016 page or by calling the Fund’s Health Promotion Division at 202-628-5465.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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