Darker Skin Can Hide Early Signs of Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States yet there's a whole group of people who may not be getting the message that it's a threat for them as well. NY1's Erin Billups filed the following report.

A growth on the back of Trina Tucker's head kept getting bigger and bigger.

"I thought it was a hair bump so I would try and squeeze it," recalls Tucker.

Her barber kept warning her to get it checked. Eventually it got so big she couldn't ignore it.

Dermatologist Andrew Alexis removed the growth, tested it and delivered the news: It was cancerous.

"I was totally baffled that I could get cancer, especially where I got it on my scalp," Tucker said.

Alexis heads Mount Sinai/St. Luke's Roosevelt's Skin of Color Center - the only facility of its kind in the state focusing on ailments affecting people with darker skin.

"We need to improve public awareness of skin cancers in darker skin types. I see patients every day that are surprised by my recommendation to protect their skin from the sun or have a skin exam," says Dr. Alexis.

Alexis says dermatology has mainly focused on how conditions present on fairer skin. For example, literature says basal cell carcinoma - the most common skin cancer - is usually pink and pearly looking, cropping up in the head and neck area.

"When it occurs in darker skin types it can actually be brown or pigmented, and easier to miss. Common important areas to look out for are the soles of the feet, the finger nails, the toe nails, even inside the mouth and the genital area," says Dr. Alexis.

He says on top of wearing broad spectrum sunscreen, people with darker skin tones should see a dermatologist once a year to check for suspicious growths.

African Americans and Hispanics particularly are more likely to die from a melanoma - the most dangerous skin cancer - than a white person, because they're usually diagnosed too late.

"Any new or changing spot, mole or growth. Anything that itches, bleeds, hurts, changes over time should be seen by a dermatologist and evaluated," says Dr. Alexis.

Tucker is now cancer free and keeping a close eye on her skin.

"Knowledge is power. Once you know you're a candidate for cancer you have to take precautions," she adds.

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