Bob Marley: Rare skin cancer killed icon – expert warns of ‘unknown’ risk factor

Bob Marley’s daughter Makeda speaks at Washington protest

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Reportedly Marley’s final words to his son Ziggy were “money can’t buy life” and heartbreakingly so, Marley was right. The One Love singer first noticed something was wrong when he found a small lesion on his toe. Thinking it was an injury from playing football he thought nothing of it, but as the injury worsened he visited another doctor who gave him the devastating diagnosis.

The doctor told Marley that the melanoma had spread from under the toenail and when it was discovered he advised the singer to get his toe amputated.

Unwilling to have a part of his body removed, Marley instead agreed to have a skin graft, the tissue surrounding the nail was also removed.

Having no further treatment after this the singer was in remarkable health. That was until he collapsed in New York City in 1980. After being rushed to hospital, further medical tests revealed that the melanoma had spread to his brain, lungs and stomach.

WebMD explains that melanoma that occurs under your nails is an extremely rare form of cancer and is also extremely serious. It is known professionally as subungual melanoma.

These cases are only seen in 0.7 to 3.5 percent of people in the world who are diagnosed with melanoma, but similarly to Marley’s case the condition can spread to other parts of your body and become fatal.

In 75 to 90 percent of reported cases, subungual melanomas are found in the thumb and the big toe. But they can be seen in other toes and fingers and can be quite painful.

Subungual melanomas usually appear in the form of brown to black discolorations in the nail bed. This could be in the form of a long, thin-line or streak and can be irregularly shaped.

The discoloured section of the nail can get thicker, split or become damaged in some way and is possible it will never repair.

When Marley’s condition began to worsen on a flight to return to Jamaica the plane had to do an emergency landing in Miami where Marley sadly passed away.

If Marley’s condition had been diagnosed earlier it is possible that he would have survived as early detection and treatment is crucial for keeping the condition at bay.

Subungual melanoma is unusual as most cases of skin melanoma are caused by sun exposure. Dermatologists therefore warn against unprotected sun exposure.

However, subungual melanoma isn’t usually caused by the sun. Most cases seem to be caused by injury or trauma. It also tends to affect middle-aged and older adults with darker skin.

Another unusual cause of skin pigmentation that leaves you exposed to melanoma is high energy visible light, otherwise known as blue light. Similar to UV light, but written about far less it is an unknown risk factor and can lead to skin cancer.

HEV or blue light is most often produced by television, laptops and mobile phone screens.

Talking exclusively to skin expert and former GP Dr Rekha Tailor talked about the dangers of HEV. She said: “Despite being relatively unknown, research has proven that HEV light can cause skin to age prematurely and also influences skin conditions such as pigmentation.

“Whilst UV light penetrates the outer layers of the skin, HEV light penetrates the lower layers (the dermis).

“When the skin is exposed to UV radiation, hormonal balance or trauma, it activates melanocytes which increase melanin production. Melanin is the pigment that gives the skin colour. When melanin is not evenly distributed, it can cause freckles, brown spots or patchy pigmentation. Although freckles and brown spots are not a skin disorder, it is a key sign of exposure and damage which will age the skin prematurely and is associated with skin cancers.

“Blue light creates free radicals on the surface of the skin which cause oxidative stress, resulting in a weakened skin barrier and hyperpigmentation, along with damaging the fibres that keep your skin looking firm and smooth.”

The warning about HEV and blue light is a stark wake-up call for those who use electronic devices on a daily basis, especially with the increase of working from home. As with Marley’s condition it proves that even people with darker skin can get melanoma. The condition also often develops in places that do not get a lot of sun exposure such as inside the mouth, on the tongue, under fingernails and toenails, and on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.

Thankfully however, Dr Tailor also recommends a number of treatments available to curb the effects of skin pigmentation. This includes a CO2 laser and chemical peel which both aim to rid dark scars and restore the overall health of skin and nails.

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