Caucasian – Skin Cancer

The health disparity I chose to talk about is Skin Cancer. There are many types of skin cancer, but the three most prevalent are basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer, and melanoma. Skin cancer is also the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer. Basal and squamous cell cancer only has a .3% mortality rate, while melanoma has a 15-20% mortality rate. A much rarer form of melanoma known as malignant melanoma is responsible for 75% of all skin cancer deaths, despite being one of the least common. Skin cancer is much more prevalent among white individuals because their skin does not have as much melanin. There are actually three kinds of melanin, Eumelanin, Pheomelanin, and Neuromelanin, but Eumelanin is the one which differs most by race. (Pheomelanin is associated with red hair and the exact function of Neuromelanin is unknown) In general, individuals whose ancestors lived for long periods of time at the equator have higher levels of Melanin. It is interesting to note that while Melanin levels vary between different races, the number of melanocytes (the cells which produce melanin) hardly varies at all. Instead, the differences between races are due to the relative activity of the melanocytes. Melanin protects against the harmful effects of ionizing radiation, helping to protect against DNA mutations.

The relationship between race, genetics, and health is a complicated one. Oversimplification can often lead to grossly inaccurate conclusions; such oversimplifications have happened many times throughout recorded history. I would argue that while there are certain cases where race can have a direct effect on one’s health, the primary way in which race and health are related is actually a result of the varying social practices of the various races. This would mean that race and health share causation with social practices, but between themselves share only a correlation. (As the media is often prone to forgetting, correlation does not imply causation)

Melanoma of the Skin
Death Rates* by Race/Ethnicity and Sex, U.S., 1999–2008

Mortality source: U.S. Mortality Files, National Center for Health Statistics, CDC.
*Rates are per 100,000 persons and are age-adjusted to the 2000 U.S. standard population (19 age groups – Census P25-1130). Death rates cover 100% of the U.S. population.
Hispanic origin is not mutually exclusive from race categories (white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native).


2 thoughts on “Caucasian – Skin Cancer

  1. I think that your discussion of the biological and genetic correlations between skin cancer and different races is very interesting. For example, I think that melanocyte activity definitely predisposes certain people to sunburns and other skin conditions over others with higher melanocyte activity. However, I do not believe this accounts for the entire health disparity. I would like to expand upon your mention of the role of social practices characteristic of certain races. It is more common for individuals who identify as white to expose themselves to unprotected natural sun as well as artificial rays emitted by tanning facilities for the sake of outward appearance. I believe that part of the reason for this disparity is that it is this group which is more prone to have more sun exposure as they are trying to reach that nice golden tan which is prized in our society.
    I personally believe that the usefulness of racial categories in clinical studies mainly pertains to sociology and psychology rather than strict biological medicine. This data has the potential to give insight to risk factors for disease beyond biology or genetics. I feel that the best way to discuss racialized health disparities is within a social context because race is effectively a social construct. The correlations between race and certain health disparities can provide us new insight into the effects of certain social or economic states and pressure upon people of different races.

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