Hispanics and Skin Cancer: Myths, Attitudes May Increase Risks

In culturally diverse South Florida, the sun’s rays are a year-round mainstay, even through winter and in between rainy-season thunderstorms. So it’s not surprising that a new report about how U.S. Hispanics may be putting themselves at higher risk for skin cancer has especially strong repercussions for this community.

Many Hispanics believe they are protected from the sun because they have darker skin tones, according to an article published by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). It is a false belief that has persisted among Hispanic populations in the U.S. for generations, the AAD states.

Many U.S. Hispanics, also referred to as Latinos by the AAD, don’t take the necessary steps to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful UV rays, which should include self-examinations and application of sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Moreover, some Hispanics indulge in indoor tanning before spending time in the sun, falsely assuming that this “base tan” will protect them. Indoor tanning puts everyone at higher risk for skin cancer. The AAD and primary care physicians advise all patients, regardless of skin color, to stay away from indoor tanning beds and protect themselves from the sun. And this is especially true throughout South Florida.

Dermatologist Maritza I. Perez, M.D., a clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York is quoted in a lengthy statement put out this month by the AAD.

“The belief that Hispanic people don’t have to worry about skin cancer has existed among Latinos for generations,” Perez says. “They hear it from their parents and grandparents, and then they pass this belief on to their children.”

The AAD is so concerned about these persistent myths regarding skin cancer that it has organized a “Latino Outreach Program.” In addition to providing free skin cancer screenings, the program educates low-income Hispanic outdoor workers, such as those who work in landscaping, agriculture and construction, about skin cancer prevention and detection.

Overall, more Americans than ever are being diagnosed with melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, according to new data published in December in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Dermatology. Rates of melanoma have been steadily rising over the last seven years. More Americans are encountering melanomas in both early and later stages, the researchers said.

“While the incidence of Hispanics and African Americans getting melanoma is lower compared with Caucasian populations, darker-skinned people are not immune to melanoma,” said Coren Menendez, M.D., a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care.

Dr. Menendez cautions that melanoma among Hispanics and African Americans tend to be caught later, when it has spread to other parts of the body. The American Cancer Society reports that the 5-year survival rate for African Americans with a melanoma diagnosis is 75 percent, versus a 93 percent survival rate in Caucasians.

“I tell my darker-skinned patients to by even more vigilant about their skin,” Dr. Menendez says. “Moles can be hidden or ignored, leading to a later diagnosis, when the cancer may have already spread.”

Here are tips for the best protection against skin cancer for everyone:

  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30 daily. Reapply at least every two hours when outside (you need an ounce to cover most of the body.)
  • Wear protective clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with total UV protection.
  • Avoid over-exposure to the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., if possible. And definitely avoid getting a sunburn.
  • Do monthly self-examinations of your skin and see a physician once a year for a professional screening exam.
  • Stay away from tanning salons. Just one indoor tanning session can raise the risk of melanoma by at least 20 percent.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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