What is Melanoma?

Melanoma is a cancer that begins in the melanocytes – a cell that produces and contains the pigment called melanin. Most melanoma cells still make melanin, and so melanoma tumours are usually brown or black, but they can also appear pink, tan or even white. 

The most common locations for melanomas are chest and back for men, and legs for women. The face and neck are also common sites for melanoma, though they can form elsewhere.

Melanoma is much less common than Basal Cell and Squamous Cell skin cancers. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer because if it isn’t detected early, it can spread to other organs. For that reason, early diagnosis is key. While an individual with stage 1 melanoma has a 99% chance of surviving longer than five years, that figure drops dramatically if the cancer spreads. Individuals with stage 4 melanoma have just a 20% chance of surviving longer than five years.

The most important symptom for melanoma is a new spot on the skin or a spot that is changing in size, shape, or colour. Other signs to look for are:

  • One half of a mole or birthmark that does not match the other.
  • The edges are irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • The colour 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 is changing in size, shape, or colour.

What is melanoma caused by?

Generally, melanoma is caused by an overexposure of UV radiation – each time the skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources such as tanning beds, changes take place in the structure of cells. Too much radiation causes the skin to become permanently damaged – this will worsen with each exposure.

Who is most at risk of melanoma?

Melanoma is Australia’s ‘national cancer’, with our population experiencing this cancer at 12 times the rate of global incidence. 

A few factors that may put some people more at risk of melanoma are:

  • A family history of melanoma.
  • A history of skin cancer.
  • Age – studies have shown that people over 50 may be at increased risk of melanoma.
  • Skin colour – people with lighter skin are at a higher risk of developing melanoma.

Innovative solutions for the early detection of melanoma are vital to saving lives. 

Thanks to our supporters, Australian Cancer Research Foundation awarded $10 million to establish the Australian Centre of Excellence in Melanoma Imaging and Diagnosis (ACRF ACEMID) project. The project includes the rollout of 15 three dimensional total body imaging systems across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria to significantly enhance the capability and capacity of clinicians and researchers to detect and understand melanoma.

Can you prevent melanoma?

You can lower your risk of developing melanoma through the following activities:

  • Avoiding intentionally exposing your skin to the sun – especially through activities such as tanning.
  • Wear protective clothing such as long sleeves and polarised sunglasses.
  • Make wearing sunscreen a daily habit. A broad spectrum sunscreen which protects from both UVA and UVB rays should be reapplied every two hours when your skin is exposed to sun.
  • Avoid peak times of 12pm-2pm when the sun is at its highest, seek shade during these periods.

Is melanoma hereditary?

The risk of melanoma can be passed from generation to generation by either having a genetic predisposition to the cancer, or by inheriting traits such as pale skin that burns easily. It could also be increased by family shared lifestyle factors such as frequent sun exposure. 

Your risk of melanoma is higher if one or more of your immediate family members has had melanoma, but it is not a certainty that you develop this cancer. 

What is Mohs surgery for melanoma?

Mohs surgery is a treatment often used for treating skin cancers such as basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas. It is less common for treating melanoma but can be effective. The procedure is relatively simple and fast and doesn’t require a patient to go under general anaesthesia. 

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