A deep dive into Australia’s most dangerous skin cancer – melanoma

Despite sun safety messages, melanoma rates are growing in Australia, with the deadly disease killing more Australians each year than road accidents.

For this reason, early diagnosis is key to survival. While an individual with Stage 1 melanoma has a 99% chance of surviving longer than 5 years, that figure drops dramatically if the cancer spreads. Individuals with Stage 4 melanoma have just a 20% chance of surviving longer than 5 years.

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that begins in the melanocytes – a cell that produces and contains the pigment called melanin. Melanoma tumours can vary in colour and appearance. They are usually brown or black, but they can also appear pink, tan or even white. 

Melanoma is much less common than Basal Cell and Squamous Cell skin cancers. However, it is far more dangerous as it is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body if it’s not caught early.

What causes melanoma?

Melanoma is generally caused by an overexposure of UV radiation. Each time the skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources like tanning beds, changes take place in the structure of cells. Too much radiation causes the skin to become permanently damaged.

How do I prevent melanoma?

You can lower your risk of developing melanoma by following some sun safety tips:

  • Avoid exposing your skin to the sun, and don’t tan!
  • Wear protective clothing like long sleeve shirts and wetsuits in the water.
  • Wear sunscreen every day, even if it’s overcast. A broad-spectrum spf 30+ sunscreen that protects from both UVA and UVB rays should be reapplied every 2 hours when your skin is exposed to sun.
  • Avoid peak times of 12pm-2pm when the sun is at its highest, find a shady spot during this time.

What are the symptoms of melanoma?

Keep an eye out for a new spot on the skin or one that has changed in size, shape, or colour. Other signs to look for are:

  • One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
  • The edges of the mole are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • The colour of the spot is not the same all over and may include shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white, or blue.
  • The spot is larger than 6mm across, although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
  • The mole has changed in size, shape, or colour.

The most common locations for melanomas are the chest and back for men, and legs for women. The face and neck are also common places for melanoma to appear, however they can form anywhere on the body.

How can I get checked for melanoma?

If any of the above symptoms sound like a spot or mole on your body, it’s important to get a skin check as soon as possible. Your doctor can perform a skin check and refer you to a dermatologist if a spot looks suspicious. New and innovative technology melanoma technology is helping to catch melanoma early, vastly improving treatment outcomes for patients.

One advancement in this area is the Australian Centre of Excellence in Melanoma Imaging and Diagnosis (ACEMID), funded by a $10 million ACRF grant in 2019. ACEMID aims to reduce the annual melanoma death toll by using sophisticated 3D imaging systems to produce whole-body scans that can be monitored over time. These scans create patient ‘avatars’, enabling melanoma to be detected earlier .

In addition to the $10 million of ACEMID funding, ACRF has provided seed funding of $5 million to Westmead Institute for Cancer Research for the construction of 2 word-class melanoma research laboratories in 2011.

New melanoma research facilities and technology are innovating the way we prevent, detect and treat melanoma, and ultimately saving lives. Your support is integral in bringing us closer to a world without cancer. Help back brilliant cancer research by donating today