Bob Marley's Skin Cancer

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Bob Marley was 36 years old when he died in 1981. He was diagnosed with melanoma four years before his death. Several months before his diagnosis, in the summer of 1977, Bob Marley injured his toe while playing soccer in Paris, France. His toenail became partially detached. When he consulted with the hotel doctor, who removed the toenail. He told his manager that he had a sore "off and on" for several years.

Initially, the injury seemed like it was healing but later that summer it worsened and he consulted with a doctor in London, while on tour. The doctor ordered a biopsy and diagnosed Marley with malignant melanoma. In subsequent doctors visits, the diagnosis of malignant melanoma was confirmed. He was advised that the toe should be amputated, however, Marley refused, citing religious reasons. Marley was a devout Rastafarian and one of their beliefs is based on the Leviticus 21:5 in the Old Testament, "They shall not make baldness upon their heads, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh."

Although he didn't agree to the amputation, he did allow a doctor in Miami to excise the cancerous tissue and do a skin graft. This surgery was considered successful but as Marley continued his music career over the next several years, his health deteriorated. By 1980, Marley's cancer has metastasized and although he didn't feel well, he continued to tour, starting a tour with Stevie Wonder. The second stop of the tour was in New York and it is reported that Marley looked ill during the concert. The morning after the concert, he collapsed during a run in Central Park. He was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Marley spent the next several months consulting with doctors in New York and Miami but did not stick with any treatments. At one point he received a few radiation treatments but then elected to stop treatment. He eventually went to Germany to seek the help of a holistic doctor, Dr. Josef Issels. He received treatments such as exercise, ozone injections and vitamins. But these treatments didn't work and Marley decided to go back to his home in Jamaica to die. He became so ill in the plane, they stopped in Florida where he died at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on May 11, 1981. His cancer had spread to his liver, lungs and brain.

Bob Marley had acral lentigious melanoma, a form of skin cancer that occurs in both Caucasians and African Americans and is extremely aggressive. It is most commonly found on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and around the big toe. It can grow under the nails and is more commonly seen on the feet than on the hands. It is the most common form of melanoma in skin of color.

Despite the fact that people with skin of color are less at risk of developing skin cancer, the mortality rates are much higher. This might be because they don't necessarily associate skin cancer with a sore that won't heal or a irregularly shaped mole and don't seek medical attention until the cancer has spread.

A discoloration or dark stripe under the nails can be one of the first signs of acral lentigious melanoma. It can also appear as discoloration on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet. Other early warning signs include:

  • A sore that won't heal

  • A mole with irregular borders or one that is asymmetrical

  • A mole that changes shape, grows or changes color

  • A mole that has more than one color

  • Moles that bleed, are scaly, itch or hurt

  • New moles

  • Redness or swelling around a mole

If you have any of these signs, it is important to see a dermatologist immediately. Early detection and treatment of skin cancer is essential.


"A Death by Skin Cancer," 2011, April 11, Dr. Cleland Gooding, Tribune 242

"Beliefs About Race," Updated, 2009, Oct. 21, Staff Writer, BBC: Religions

"Skin Cancer and Skin of Color," Date Unknown, Mona Gohara M.D. and Maritza Perez, M.D., Skin Cancer Foundation

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.