According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about one in five Americans develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
Nurse Ila Smith, 42, found herself on the wrong end of that statistic. The Dallas, Texas, nurse, who, according to TODAY, enjoyed tanning in her 20s and 30s, didn’t think she could get skin cancer as a Black person.
“That was my thing. I just loved being out in the sun and getting that vitamin D and that relaxation with my headphones,” Smith told TODAY. “It was part of my lifestyle.”
Smith’s skin cancer story began with what she thought a was a birthmark on her hip. She didn’t pay much attention to it until she went to a spa with a friend who happened to be a dermatologist’s physician assistant. The friend told her she’d better “watch that.”
A few years later, Smith scratched the birthmark accidentally, and was shocked when it started bleeding. In the months that followed, the mark would become “itchy.”
After a few tests, her doctor revealed she had malignment melanoma.
“I was completely floored,” Smith says. “I got very concerned because my daughter loves Bob Marley, and that’s how he passed — from skin cancer.”
The American Cancer Society reports that malignment melanoma is more than 20 times more common in white people than in Black people, affecting just 0.1% of Black people annually.
Skin cancer is generally treatable, but early detection is key. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are a few things to look for in what might otherwise be birthmarks, moles or freckles:
- Itchiness and or bleeding
- A change in an existing mole
- New pigmentation or growths on the skin
- Irregular shaped marks
- Blotchy or scalloped borders
- Change of colors
- Other moles growing on the same mole or around it
Smith was one of the lucky ones to have caught her skin cancer early. Left untreated, melanoma can quickly spread to the other parts of the body.
“As an African-American nurse practitioner, I definitely love educating the public,” she says. “Look at yourself. Make sure those little moles or birthmarks or freckles are not changing because those are the things that you want to watch out for.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution