Hispanics Get Skin Cancer, Too

You may not think that people who identify as Hispanic or Latino/Latina are at risk for sunburns or skin cancer. They are at risk, though, and some are at high risk. Our expert helps to dispel the myths.

By Maritza I. Perez, MD

While it’s true that people with very light skin have the highest risk for skin cancer, people of color can develop skin cancer, too. People who identify as Hispanic and Latino, in fact, can be any race or mix of races and have any color of skin. It all started when Christopher Columbus, an Italian, set sail from Spain with Spanish crew members and arrived in 1492 at various islands in the “New World,” which at that time was mainly the Caribbean. Spaniard Ponce de León joined him on his next voyage, looking for gold and that mythical fountain of youth and landed in what is now Puerto Rico.

These voyages led the way for European colonization, and soon waves of immigrants started arriving in Central and South America. These included Italians, Germans and Portuguese. Others arrived from Africa and Asia. The immigrants mixed with the indigenous people, and Latin America became a melting pot. So the genetics for light skin and risk for sun damage were woven into the culture, along with the genetics for darker skin and greater natural protection against sun damage. Here, some important, surprising facts about Hispanics and skin cancer. 

Hispanic Population Growing
This increase illustrates the need to raise awareness about the risks and the urgent need for sun protection in the Hispanic population.

What’s the Difference between Hispanic and Latino/Latina?

These terms, while often used interchangeably, are slightly different. In general, Hispanic refers to people with origins in Spanish-speaking countries. Latino/Latina refers more specifically to people with roots in Latin America. They mostly overlap, but not completely.4

Melanoma Can Be Deadly

While fewer Hispanic people are diagnosed with melanoma than Caucasians, a higher percentage of Hispanics who are diagnosed with melanoma die from it.7

Percentage of deaths among those diagnosed with melanoma, 2008 to 2012

Note that men have a higher mortality rate among both Hispanics and Caucasians.

Worse Prognosis

While Hispanic people have a lower overall incidence of melanoma than non-Hispanic whites, they are less often diagnosed early, when the cancer is still localized (hasn't spread) and has the best chance of being cured. Unfortunately, this means Hispanics are more often diagnosed after the cancer has spread and thus is more difficult to treat.8

Percentage of melanoma patients diagnosed when the cancer is still localized and most curable

Diagnosed Younger

A small study in San Diego looked at nonmelanoma skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common types of skin cancer) among Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian patients. While the incidence was much higher in Caucasians, the researchers found that the Hispanic patients were diagnosed at a significantly younger age (62 versus 70) and had more skin cancers in the “central face” area.9

The Bottom Line

Hispanic people are the largest population without health insurance in the U.S. Nearly 20 percent lack medical insurance, compared with about 10 percent of the general population.10 Also, nearly 24 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. live under the poverty level.11 Lack of access to medical care is a problem. As reported in the literature, and in my own experience, Hispanics are and will be at risk of developing and dying from skin cancer unless they become more aware of the risk and take greater steps to protect themselves from the sun.

Maritza I. Perez, MD, founder and director of ADVANCED AESTHETICS in New Canaan, Connecticut, is an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and an attending physician in the Mount Sinai Health System hospitals in New York City. Dr. Perez is also a senior vice president of The Skin Cancer Foundation and a member of its Amonette Circle.

Published on May 25, 2016