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Rare Skin Cancer in African Americans

Friday, July 6, 2001 at 7:43 AM

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Most people believe skin cancer is caused by over-exposure to the sun and not enough sunscreen. And for the most part that's true - exposure to ultra-violet rays from the sun is the number one cause of skin cancer - but it's not the only cause. For the most part, those with darker skin pigmentation have a natural sun protection factor, so when a skin cancer diagnosis is made it's a horrible surprise. 90.3 WCPN's Tarice Sims reports one African American victim who is struggling to understand this rare illness.

Tarice Sims- Bernice Thomas spent years taking care of others - she raised four children in her home in East Cleveland. She also took care of those struggling with mental illness through her job as a social worker. Oddly enough, Thomas was taking her sister-in-law to the hospital when she discovered something that would make caring for herself difficult. The 58-year-old had previously discovered a spot on the bottom of her foot. Her sister-in-law encouraged her to have it checked out.

Bernice Thomas- She’s diabetic and she had a tiny little spot under her toe that was causing her lots of problems and I thought, “gee, that little problem and they’re talking about amputating your toe - maybe I’d better have the doctor look at this spot under my foot.”

TS- After two physicians looked at it, she was referred to a dermatologist who did a biopsy. A week later, Thomas got some surprising news.

BT- She said it was malignant. And I could not even imagine in my wildest dream. Malignant for what, and then she told me melanoma and I thought, African Americans don’t get melanoma.

Faith Durden- Skin cancer is rare in African Americans.

TS- Dr. Faith Durden is assistant professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University. She says most people associate skin cancer with over exposure to the sun. And people of color don’t believe skin cancer was a threat to them.

FD- I think the biggest myth is the assumption that people of color cannot get skin cancer that they cannot develop skin cancer. A lot of people believe that because of the intrinsic pigment of the skin that they are completely immune to skin cancer and that is quite false.

TS- Durden says that skin needs to be protected from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Not all people have a naturally high sun protection factor or SPF. And so sunscreen lotion is needed. African Americans can have an SPF of up to 8, still the minimum protection any person needs is 15. But dermatologists maintain the sun isn’t the only reasons people get melanoma. Bernice Thomas got it on the bottom of her foot an area where complexion doesn’t matter. Dr. Oscar Saffold is a dermatologist in Cleveland. He says there are several causes for this type of skin cancer.

Oscar Saffold- Where tumors occur when there is no sun exposure then the incidents sort of evens out, because it’s not due to sun exposure it’s due to other factors - genetics, it’s due to irritation, trauma for example. There are areas in Africa where accrual intiginous melanoma on the soles of their feet are very prevalent in may be because of some carcinogen some feet are exposed to on a daily basis, people are more likely to be without shoes.

TS- Bernice Thomas admits that she often walks outside without shoes a habit she formed while growing up in Mississippi. Still Thomas and her doctors are not certain what caused her melanoma. Right now she’s living through a second bout with the disease and says the ordeal has everyone close to her examining their skin.

BT- African Americans that have gotten melanoma normally have not gotten it from the sun. It is something that occurs in the palms our hands and the bottom of feet we need to check those areas frequently. I wouldn’t say don’t use sunscreen use it if there’s a chance of keeping you from getting anything. But we need to check things like moles.

TS- Thomas says she’s hopeful that she won’t be laid up for too long. She says doctors are going to use a cancer treatment called Interferon instead of chemotherapy. It’s an alternative way of fighting cancer cells while building the immune system - but the process takes just as long. Thomas starts the year long regimen on Monday. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 WCPN News.

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