Melanoma

Of the three commonly known skin cancers, melanoma is the least common but the most serious. They arise from uncontrolled growth of melanocytes, the pigment producing cells located at the bottom part of the top skin layer (epidermis). These cells also cause freckles and moles where they grow in a controlled fashion.

How often does Melanoma occur in Australia?
  • Australia has the highest rate of Melanoma development in the world
  • There are over 10,000 cases of Melanoma diagnosed every year.
  • Melanoma is the most common cancer occurring in people between the ages of 15-44.
How many people die from Melanoma in Australia?
  • Melanoma is responsible for over 1000 Australian deaths annually.
  • Melanoma accounts for only 2.3% of all skin cancers but causes 75% of all skin cancer deaths.
  • Melanoma detected and treated early can be completely cured.
What causes Melanoma?

Melanoma is usually caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) in sunlight, especially if it has led to sunburn. People who have been sunburnt in childhood and adolescence are particularly prone. There are also genetic and skin-type factors which increase the risk of melanoma development.

Am I at risk of developing Melanoma?

Growing up in Australia's sunny climate is a risk factor for developing Melanoma.

Melanoma risk is also increased in people with:

  • Dysplastic moles
  • multiple moles
  • Severe sunburns in the past
  • Fair skin type with or without freckles, red or blonde hair, light eye colour
  • Past history of Melanoma or other skin cancers
  • A close family member with Melanoma
Where does Melanoma occur?

The most common areas for Melanoma to arise are:

Males:
  • back
  • head and neck
Females:
  • lower legs.
In darker-skinned people:
  • under the fingernails or toenails
  • palms of the hands
  • soles of the feet

Although these are the most common areas, melanomas can appear anywhere on the skin (even in areas which are not usually exposed to the sun). It is therefore important to check your entire skin on a regular basis for new or changing moles.

What does Melanoma look like?

Melanomas may develop as a new "mole" or may cause an existing mole to change in size, shape or colour. Important signs to look for are the "ABCD"s of Melanoma:

  • Asymmetry
  • Borders that are irregular
  • Changing spots or unusual Colours
  • Different to the other spots on the skin

Most Melanomas are dark in colour, but some may appear as a firm growing pinkish or pale lump. It is important to be aware of the "EFG" signs for these less common melanomas:

  • Elevated (raised from the skin)
  • Firm to feel
  • Growing rapidly

Although these types of Melanoma are rare, they are often more aggressive and can lead to a higher risk of death if not detected early.

Pictures of Melanoma
Melanoma Treatment

When a Melanoma is suspected, it is usually surgically removed and sent to a specialist laboratory to be examined under a microscope with special stains. The laboratory will then issue a report confirming the diagnosis of Melanoma and will also provide information about the Melanoma thickness ("Breslow thickness"). Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the Melanoma site is again surgically removed (re-excised) with a wide margin of normal looking skin around it in all directions. The size of normal skin that needs to be removed around the Melanoma is dependent on the Melanoma thickness and other factors which are contained in the specialist laboratory report.

People who have a thick Melanoma may be offered a special investigation which may help to determine if the Melanoma has spread to the draining lymph nodes (Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy). If the draining lymph nodes are affected, they are removed.

What happens if Melanoma is not treated?

Melanomas detected and treated early have a very good survival outcome. If left untreated, melanomas have a high potential to spread to other parts of the body and can potentially lead to death.

Do not delay if you see a suspicious mole on yourself or your loved ones, have it examined carefully by a trained doctor as soon as possible.