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What Dark-Skinned People Need to Know About Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is often thought of as something people with fair skin are at risk for. The truth is, people with dark skin can get skin cancer, and when they do they’re more likely to die from the disease. 

Widely recognized skin cancer specialist Ali Hendi, MD, and his highly-skilled clinical team wants people with dark skin to know the risks, signs, and symptoms of skin cancer so you can take quick action and increase your risk of survival.

What is skin cancer?

The cells in your body have a lifespan. The process of apoptosis controls cell death and ensures unwanted cells are replaced with new ones. Skin cancer happens when abnormal skin cells grow out of control. 

Over five million people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer each year. It’s the most common form of cancer in the country.

Types of skin cancer

Your outermost layer of skin (epidermis) has three types of cells; squamous, basal, and melanocyte. 

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer. It typically develops on sun-exposed areas of the skin. It grows slowly and may appear flat or raised. It may have growths, feel firm, or appear as an open sore.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma grows slowly and shows up most often on sun-exposed areas of skin. It typically appears as a red scaly patch or growth that looks similar to a wart.


Melanoma starts in the pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. It's faster growing and often more lethal than other types of skin cancer. It may appear as a new mole that changes size, shape, or color.

People with dark skin are more susceptible to this less common but more deadly form of skin cancer. 

Melanoma warning signs

It’s important for people with dark skin to know the warning signs of melanoma and other types of skin cancer. An easy to remember method is the ABCDE rule:

Skin cancer in people with darker skin

Across all racial groups, African Americans have the lowest rates of skin cancer. However, when they do develop skin cancer, they are often diagnosed at a later stage and as a result, tend to have a poorer prognosis.

The type of skin cancer that often strikes people with dark skin tends to show up in unexpected places like the palms of the hands, soles of feet, or under the nails. It may go unnoticed for some time.

Additionally, because people with dark skin have lower rates of skin cancer, people with darker complexions may not worry much about the risk of skin cancer, allowing warning signs to fly under the radar. 

Protecting yourself 

Damage from ultraviolet radiation is a major risk factor for skin cancer. People who go tanning or spend a lot of time in the sun without the protection of sunscreen have a higher risk of developing skin cancer.

Here are some practical ways to protect yourself:

Wear sunscreen

Many people with dark skin assume they don’t need to use sunscreen. Although having darker skin offers added protection against the damaging rays of the sun, everyone is at risk of skin cancer. This makes it vital to wear sunscreen to protect your skin. 

Check your skin

Check your skin regularly for abnormalities and see a dermatologist immediately if you notice anything suspicious. Just as regular wellness exams are part of staying healthy, so is regularly checking your body for abnormal changes.

Partnering with a dermatologist

Having a dermatologist as part of your care team is invaluable. This is especially necessary if you have a family history of skin cancer or risk factors such as a history of sunburns. A dermatologist keeps track of the health of your skin and is specially trained to notice subtle changes to the skin that could spell trouble down the line. Preventing disease and treating it as early as possible is the best way to live a long, healthy life. 

Skin cancer can strike when you least expect it. Dr. Hendi and our team are dedicated to providing skin cancer patients with the highest quality of care when you need it most.

For more information on how we prevent and treat skin cancer, contact our Chevy Chase, Maryland office to schedule an in-person or virtual appointment.


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