Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocytes (cells that produce pigment giving our skin its natural colour). Melanoma is by far the most serious and dangerous type of skin cancer, because it can spread easily to other organs in the body.
When it spreads, the cancer extends downwards from the epidermis and can invade healthy tissue such as nearby lymph nodes or it can get into your bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream or lymphatic system, the cancer can easily spread to other parts of the body. That’s why, even if a melanoma is cut out, the cancer can reappear months or years later, often in your lungs, liver or brain.
The good news is that survival rates for melanoma are high in Australia, and that melanoma develops on the skin so by checking your skin and being aware of any changes, melanomas can be detected before they have the chance to spread. However, the outcome very much depends on how deep the cancer has grown. A melanoma need only be 1mm deep to get into your bloodstream and spread. So detecting melanoma early is important. The other piece of good news is that melanoma is preventable by avoiding over exposure to UVR.
Who is at greatest risk?
While melanomas can occur in anyone, some people are at much greater risk. This includes people with fair skin, particularly those with fair skin which burns and doesn’t tan. These people are likely to have red or light coloured hair and blue or green eyes. Their skin is also likely to freckle, and they may have many moles. Moles appear during childhood and teenage years and are related to both genetic factors and sun exposure. As the number of moles increases, so does the risk of developing melanoma.
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) causes melanoma. Short bursts of extreme exposure and sunburn may be especially harmful in the development of melanoma so extreme care should be taken if you spend most of your days indoors and are then outside on weekends or during holidays. It is also critical to minimise overexposure during childhood through to young adulthood, which is when you’re most likely to cause damage.
If you’re concerned about a mole or lesion on your body, talk to your doctor. For more information on routine ways to check your skin, follow the ABCDE rule.