Early Detection Key to Skin Cancer Treatment in People of Color

For many people, Memorial Day Weekend signals the unofficial start of summer, which often means lots of time outdoors for adults and children. For people with light or white skin, this means remembering to protect against sun damage and sunburn, either with sunscreen, protective clothing, hats or other barriers to sun exposure. For people of color, it can seem unnecessary to worry about sun exposure or skin cancer. But Suneeta Walia, MD, dermatologist at Ochsner Health System, cautions that this is not true.

“Everyone can get skin cancer, no matter what your skin color, even if you never sunburn,” says Dr. Walia. “Unfortunately for people of color, skin cancer often isn’t caught until it has progressed pretty far. But when we do catch it early, it is very treatable and often curable.” When referring to people of color, dermatologists include people of African, Asian, Latino, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Native American descent.

Sunscreen or No Sunscreen?

“Everyone, no matter their skin color, should wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen to block both UVA and UVB rays,” says Dr. Walia. She recommends sunscreens with zinc oxide to maximize protection from ultraviolet rays. “It’s also important to reapply it every two hours. One application is not enough. Typically, you need one ounce of sunscreen to cover your exposed body parts – the amount needed to fill a shot glass. Don’t forget your nose, the insides of your ears and your lips. These areas can be higher risk for skin cancer development.”

What to Look For

Dr. Walia says monthly checks are important. Look at your entire body in a full-length mirror, or, ask a partner to help with a handheld mirror. Check your skin head to toe, especially hard-to-see areas like the top of your head or back. Look at each spot or mole using the ABCDE rule. If you notice any of the following, it’s time to see a doctor:

  • Asymmetry – one half of the spot looks different from the other.
  • Border – the border is irregular, poorly defined, or scalloped
  • Color – the color isn’t consistent throughout the spot, perhaps darker or lighter in one area
  • Diameter – greater than 6 millimeters, the size of a pencil eraser
  • Evolving – size, shape or color looks different from the rest and is changing.

She also recommends the following to people of color to help detect skin cancer early:

  • Ask a hairdresser or barber to let you know if he or she notices a growth or unusual spot on your scalp or hairline.
  • Look closely at areas that get little attention, such as
    • bottoms of feet
    • toenails
    • lower legs
    • groin and buttocks
  • Other things to look for:
    • Dark spot, growth or darker patch of skin that is growing, bleeding, changing in any way
    • Sore that won’t heal – or heals and returns
    • Sore that has a hard time healing, especially if the sore appears in a scare or on skin that was injured in the past
    • Patch of skin that feels rough and dry
    • Dark line underneath or around a fingernail or toenail

“Monthly checks help you to see changes in spots on your skin that could be skin cancer,” says Dr. Walia. “I also recommend people take pictures of their moles or spots with their phones. That’s an easy way to see if they have changed over time.”

If you find any spots or changes that concern you, Dr. Walia suggests making an appointment with a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in conditions of the skin.

For more information, or to make an appointment with an Ochsner dermatologist in the Greater New Orleans area, visit www.ochsner.org, or call 1-866-624-7637.

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