Darker skin tones also at risk of cancer

PHOTO: fileBob Marley died as the result of a genetic disease that can lead to skin cancer.
PHOTO: fileBob Marley died as the result of a genetic disease that can lead to skin cancer.

IF you think you are immune to skin cancer because you have darker skin, think again.

Experts say although historically darker skin shades were less vulnerable before, with climate change, everyone is at risk.

Paediatric dermatologist and medical researcher Dr Carol Hlela said with approximately 20 000 South Africans diagnosed with skin cancer every year, environmental changes have made it easier for people of all skin tones to get the disease.

“The misconception that black people are safe is unsubstantiated. With climate change now we never know. I mean one day we didn’t have HIV and then the next we did. The same could happen with skin cancers caused by exposure to the sun, For all we know an epidemic could be looming,” she said.

Hlela explained that damage to the ozone layer has made it easier for ultraviolet rays B and C, which previously had not been able to get through, to enter the atmosphere, thereby endangering people of all skin tones.

Hlela said that other factors lead to skin cancer including previous sunburn, some genetic disorders and a weakened immune system.

She explained that the immune system’s relationship with the sun and skin cancer was reciprocal because while a weakened immune system combined with exposure to the sun could lead to skin cancer, the sun also in turn weakened the immune system.

“This element of weakened immune systems makes people of all skin tones prone to skin cancer,” said Hlela, adding that this meant children are also susceptible.

“Up to 80% of sun exposure takes place in childhood and adolescence. Childhood is particularly a vulnerable time for the photocarcinogenic effects of the sun. Therefore, sun protection at this stage is of utmost importance,” she said.

The death of reggae legend Bob Marley was an example of how genetic diseases could lead to skin cancer, she said.

Bob Marley was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma — a cancer caused by a genetic malfunction in which the patient lacks the natural gene in all humans that protects them from harmful UV radiation. She said acral lentiginous melanoma and albinism were the main genetic diseases that led to skin cancers especially when combined with sun exposure.

“If you’re genetically predisposed in these two ways, the chances are very high that you will be diagnosed with skin cancer at some point in your life. We urge people not to ignore it and leave it until it’s too late. Start treatment very early.”

Even better than early detection is prevention.

“We all know about the dangers of excessive sun exposure … However, it’s not emphasised enough that sunscreen use shouldn’t be the only measure we use to protect ourselves from the sun, but the use of protective clothing and rather avoiding the sun are equally as important.”

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