Melanoma Study Shows People of Color Less Likely to Get Melanoma, but More Likely to Die from Skin Cancer

Side portrait of healthy young african man running at the beach with bright sunlight from back
Side portrait of healthy young african man running at the beach with bright sunlight from back

Although white individuals are the ones most often diagnosed with melanoma, it is individuals with colored skin who are most at risk of dying from skin cancer, according to a study published last week in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

The study focused on melanoma since it is the deadliest type of skin cancer, and emphasizes that skin cancer is a problem for all groups. Although the findings were initially presented at a conference back in 2014, they have only recently seen print.

Researchers made use of the National Cancer Institute’s database of cancer occurrences and outcomes to develop a pool of 97,000 patients that were diagnosed with melanoma from 1992 to 2009. It was found that white (Caucasian) patients had the highest incidence rate and highest survival rate for melanoma, with survival rates being lower for Hispanic, Asian American, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

When African-Americans were examined, it was found that they had the worst survival rate out of all of the other groups. Not only did they have the worst prognosis regardless of which stage of melanoma they were diagnosed with, African-Americans were also the most likely to get diagnosed with late-stage melanoma.

Aside from showing a contrast between skin cancer risk and the risk of dying from skin cancer, the study shines a light on racial disparities that warrant further investigation.

Since the design of the study was not meant to assess causes for the discrepancies in skin cancer outcomes, a few theories have been proposed. People with colored skin might not think a new skin irregularity, even one that causes itching, is worth seeking medical attention as often as a white person; thus potentially delaying diagnoses and treatment. There may be biological differences in the cancers themselves that cause melanomas in colored skin to behave more aggressively than skin cancers in lighter skin.

Finding out the cause will require more investigation, but for now the data is showing that melanoma is a concern for everyone regardless of individual risk.

Dawes, S., et. al., “Racial disparities in melanoma survival, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2016;