Ask most people in the US who is most likely to get skin cancer, and you would probably expect to hear an answer that includes some variant on the term, "Caucasians." In fact, the stereotype of the person with skin cancer is a white person in a tanning bed or slathered with oil on a sunny beach, seeking a golden tan. Perhaps an elderly white man playing golf in Florida comes to your mind. However, a recent study indicates that the picture of skin cancer in this country is shifting: surprisingly, Hispanic and Asian women are now the fastest-growing category of skin cancer patients.
What exactly is skin cancer?
The type of skin cancer discussed in the study conducted by University of California, San Diego (UCSD) is non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC)--the most commonly diagnosed malignancy in this country. Non-melanoma cancers include basal cell (which constitute 80% of NMSCs) and squamous cell carcinoma. In layman's terms, these are cancers that are less likely to spread and are more easily treated than melanomas. To illustrate, about 2,000 people die from NMSCs each year, while the number who die from melanomas are significantly higher at nearly 10,000. Symptoms of non-melanoma skin cancers include
Basal cell carcinoma: an open sore that doesn't seem to heal, a raised patch of crusty/itchy skin, a shiny or translucent bump, or a scar-like white patch of skin
Squamous cell carcinoma: a wart-like growth, a persistent scaly red spot, an open sore persisting for weeks, or a raised growth with a depression in the middle
If you notice one of these unusual bumps, sores, or patches on your body, make an appointment with your doctor. Early detection allows for quick treatment.
The UCSD study did not completely dispel the stereotype of older white men with skin cancer; most Caucasians with NMSC are indeed men in their mid-60s. Further, most (96%) of the 3.5 million NMSCs diagnosed each year occur in Caucasians. But the study did find some interesting information:
- When non-melanoma skin cancers occur in Hispanic and Asian populations, the victims are mostly women. Fully ⅔ of NMSC cases in these groups occur in females.
- Hispanics are often diagnosed in later stages of the disease than other populations, so their survival rates are poorest.
- Asian women are among the oldest patients diagnosed; the average Asian woman with non-melanoma skin cancer is 70.
Why these unexpected results? The study's lead researcher, Dr. Arisa Ortiz, offers some explanations:
- Both Hispanic and Asian peoples tend to believe that their darker skin protects them from sunburn and skin cancer.
- While Asian peoples have traditionally valued fair skin, current generations seem to have adopted Americans' tanning mentality.
- Both these populations are growing steadily in the United States and, therefore, offer an increasing patient population. For example, the number of Hispanics in this country increased 43% in just the first decade of this century.
Ortiz recommends increasing education to these ethnic populations about the importance of sun protection, including the use of sunscreens, hats, and umbrellas.
There are a variety of treatments for these skin cancers, including:
- Surgery: cryotherapy (freezing), laser therapy, grafting, and reconstruction
- Radiation: may be used instead of surgery for sensitive areas such as the eyelids or ears
- Topical treatment: using chemotherapeutic creams
- Photodynamic therapy: which combines topical treatment with exposure to light-emitting devices
No matter what your skin type or ethnic origin, skin cancer poses a real risk; therefore, use sunscreen and other sun protection when working or at leisure outdoors. If you have always believed you could never develop skin cancer because you have dark skin, think again. Most especially, if you are an Asian or Hispanic woman who has noticed unusual marks, sores, or bumps on your body, call your doctor. Non melanoma skin cancer is highly treatable--but it must first be detected.