Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops when melanocytes, the cells that give the skin its tan or brown color, start to grow out of control. It’s much less common than the two other major types of skin cancer—basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma—but much more likely to invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body. Most deaths from skin cancer are caused by melanoma.
Skin that makes more melanin is naturally darker and provides more protection from the sun’s UV radiation than light skin, according to the American Cancer Society. But not all types of melanoma are related to UV radiation exposure. Your genes or other factors may have a role in your risk for it.
The lifetime risk of developing melanoma is 1 in 1,000 for Black people, 1 in 167 for Hispanics, and 1 in 38 for Whites, according to the American Cancer Society. While it’s true that people with darker skin have a lower risk of melanoma, it’s also true that non-Hispanic Black Americans are more likely to have lower survival rates when they are diagnosed, according to the study “Melanoma Among Non-Hispanic Black Americans”
That’s partly because compared with non-Hispanic whites, people with darker skin are more often diagnosed with later-stage melanoma (after it’s spread). It’s also because the most common type of melanoma among non-Hispanic Black people — called acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) — has a lower survival rate.
This type of melanoma tends to occur on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, or under the nails. Those are not obvious places people think to check for skin cancer. Researchers say education could lead Black people to get skin checks from their doctors more regularly. They also hope better education will help healthcare providers spot potential skin cancer faster.
Melanoma at any stage is a serious diagnosis. Surgery is the most common approach to treat melanoma, according to the Melanoma Research Alliance. Studies show that Blacks are far less likely to receive surgery for their melanomas compared with Whites, even though it improves survival.
While medications are available that can slow the progression of the disease, not all melanomas respond, and the side effects can outweigh the benefits. That’s why researchers are working hard to develop more options, such as those being examined in Bristol Myers Squibb’s clinical research program.