Many today may be aware that Bob Marley died from cancer, and that he died very prematurely. He was only 36 when cancer killed him. However, the cancer that spread to his brain and other organs grew from a type of skin cancer. Acral lentigious melanoma is an uncommon type of cancer found on the palms of hands, soles of feet, and under finger and toenails. Reportedly, Bob Marley had injured the toenail of his right big toe during a soccer game. The injury did not heal and the toenail bed became cancerous. You can see from the photo below, the dark, irregular patch might simply appear to be a bruise or blood blister, and not be cause for any serious medical examination.
A skin doctor’s website states, “Melanoma can appear as a nail streak or non-healing bruise.” In other words, something on the skin that may appear trivial to a lay person, might be actually cancerous.
It is early detection that helps save lives, because if skin cancer is removed before it can begin to grow, it can’t spread to other body parts nor cause death. In fact, for this particular skin cancer, a research study showed there can be a significant delay between the time it is first noticed and diagnosed, “The average time from patients first noticing something to diagnosis was 13.5 months.” That period of over one year could be the difference between early surgical removal and the cancer spreading.
One source says it was suggested to Bob Marley that he needed to have his cancerous big toe surgically removed, “Doctors advised him to have the toe amputated, but he refused, saying “Rasta no abide amputation. I and I don’t allow a mon ta be dismantled.” In his case, not only was the cancer not detected early, but reportedly there was a cultural issue involved in his decision-making process.
In 1977, his toe was diagnosed with cancer, and by 1980 the cancer had spread to his liver, stomach, and brain. If he had agreed to have the cancerous toe removed, would it have stopped the cancer from spreading and kept him alive? How long had the toe been cancerous, and did his case match the research paper’s observation that over one year passes before the cancer is diagnosed? If Bob Marley’s cancer had been diagnosed early, and removed before it spread, it is reasonable to believe he could still be alive today, barring other mishaps. A recent research study reported about melanoma, “…but more men die from it because of lack of awareness of skin cancer symptoms, ignoring the symptoms or postponing visits to skin doctors.”
Malignant melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, occurring most frequently in Caucasians. But the first type of cancer Bob Marley had, Acral lentigious melanoma, is more common in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern populations, according to the same research paper cited above. (A Medscape article says it occurs with the same frequency in African-Americans as Caucasians, and is “extremely aggressive”.)
Skin cancer awareness in 1977 when Marley was diagnosed, may not have been as high as it is today. Even with more awareness and public health campaigns, the number of malignant melanomas over the last several decades has increased several times.
Symptoms of melanoma are: “The primary symptom of any skin cancer is usually a mole, sore, lump, or growth on the skin. Any change in appearance of a pigmented skin sore over time is a warning sign. Also, watch for any bleeding from a skin growth.” The problem with noticing it, they say, is the melanoma may be no larger than a pencil eraser in diameter.
Make no mistake, I am not blaming Bob Marley for his cancer, but it is possible his death could have been prevented with early detection and removal of the first skin cancer. I wrote this article because I wish he were still alive, and that more people were aware of how to spot melanoma so they don’t die prematurely. Marley was one of the most original and socially relevant musical artists in modern history.