It is not true that people with darker skin tones are immune to skin cancer. People with darker skin do develop skin cancer, but less often than those with lighter skin.
The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) reports that people with darker skin tones often do not receive a diagnosis until skin cancer is in its later stages.
This may be because dermatologists and doctors are less familiar with how the cancer presents on darker skin, because the cancerous lesions are harder to recognize, or because people do not think that they are likely to get skin cancer.
However, receiving a timely diagnosis is crucial.
A late-stage diagnosis can be life threatening. The 5-year survival rate for Black people in the United States with melanoma is 71%, compared with 93% for white people. This statistic reflects the number of people who live for at least 5 years after a doctor makes the diagnosis.
Below, learn more about skin cancer in darker skin, including how to prevent it and what it can look like.
Skin cancer is not particularly common in people with darker skin. Among Black people in the U.S., skin cancer makes up only 1–2% of all cancer cases, the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) notes.
In people with medium to dark skin, which may include some Hispanic and Asian people, skin cancer makes up 4–5% and 2–4% of all cancer cases, respectively.
When skin cancer does develop, it commonly appears on areas of skin with less pigment, including:
- mucous membranes, such as inside the mouth
- under the nails
- the soles of the feet
- the palms of the hands
- the anogenital region, which is the area around the groin and anus
- the lower legs
In people with darker skin tones, skin cancer often develops on the sole of the foot. This accounts for 30–40% of all skin cancer cases, according to the SCF.
The sun’s harmful UV rays and tanning beds are the two primary causes of skin cancer.
Anyone can get skin cancer. And people with the
- lighter skin that that burns easily
- blue or green eyes
- blonde or red hair
- multiple moles or certain types of moles
- a personal or family history of skin cancer
- older age
Some types are more common in people with darker skin. For example, BCC is
When a healthcare professional diagnoses skin cancer early, treatment can usually send it into remission. However, People of Color are less likely to receive an early diagnosis. This can lead to poorer outcomes.
The AAD reports in African American people, doctors diagnose about 25% of melanomas in the regional stage. This means that the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, but no further.
They diagnose about 16% of melanoma cases in the distant stage, when the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body.
Most forms of skin cancer are
Skin cancer can appear on areas of skin exposed to the sun, such as the face, arms, neck, and shoulders. However, for people with darker skin, the cancer may appear on other areas, including:
- under the fingernails or toenails
- the soles of the feet
- the lower legs
- the groin
- the buttocks
- inside the mouth
Anyone who notices an unusual patch of skin anywhere on the body should contact a doctor.
Also, a suspicious mole may have uneven coloring.
Cancerous areas and moles often have irregular, asymmetrical shapes, with jagged, uneven borders.
As a strategy for spotting melanomas, doctors may recommend looking for “ugly ducklings.” Normal moles tend to resemble one another, while a cancerous lesion tends to have a unique appearance.
Read more about identifying melanomas on darker skin.
Areas of skin cancer can grow significantly. If a mole or suspicious area is larger than
Skin cancer can make the skin feel rough and scaly. It can also cause bumps, nodules, and indentations.
Check for any changes in a skin lesion’s size, location, or color over time.
Learn more about what skin cancer looks like on darker skin.
Everyone can take steps to help prevent skin cancer. Strategies include:
- staying in the shade whenever possible, particularly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- wearing clothes that cover most of the skin, especially during prolonged periods outside
- wearing sunscreen on exposed areas
- avoiding tanning beds
- applying sunscreen regularly
Also, people should self-examine, checking for any skin changes that might indicate cancer, every month. It can help to use a hand mirror to check difficult-to-see areas, such as the bottoms of the feet and between the toes
People with darker skin should be especially mindful to check areas where the skin’s pigment is lighter, such as the soles of the feet, inside the mouth, the anogenital region, and the palms of the hands.
When checking the skin, look for:
- any sore that does not heal well or quickly
- any sore that heals and reappears
- any unusually colored spot, growth, or area that bleeds or changes in size or shape
- a line around or underneath a fingernail or toenail
The diagnostic process can begin at home. Check the skin
Next, the doctor will perform an examination. They may also ask general questions about any family and personal history of skin cancer.
If the doctor believes that the growth or area may be cancerous, they can take a sample of the skin, called a biopsy, and send it to a pathology laboratory. There, experts examine it under a microscope to determine whether it is cancerous.
People with darker skin can develop skin cancer. It is less common than in people with lighter skin.
In people with darker skin, doctors usually diagnose this cancer at a later stage, which can lead to worse outcomes.
When doctors diagnose skin cancer at an earlier stage, treatments are typically effective. Everyone should check their skin regularly for changes that might indicate cancer.
If a person notices any changes to the color or texture of their skin, such as a mole that grows, they should contact a dermatologist or another doctor.