Melanoma

It is often referred to as ‘Australia’s national cancer’, as Australia has one of the highest melanoma rates in the world – around 1/16 of all Australians will be affected during their lifetime.

Although prevalent, melanomas can be effectively treated in many cases. Most are completely cured by surgery, and the 5-year survival rate is over 90%

Causes & contributing factors

Melanoma is most commonly caused by overexposure to sources of UV radiation such as the sun or tanning beds. As Australia – and particularly Queensland – is known for an abundance of sunshine, we are particularly prone to developing Melanomas.

Although genetic background can affect their chance of developing, melanomas are not hereditary and cannot be passed from person to person directly. They can also form in areas of the body with little to no sun exposure (such as the inside of the mouth or the soles of feet).

  • Asymmetry – While moles tend to have a round and symmetrical shape, melanomas may grow in an irregular or asymmetrical shape.
  • Border – Melanomas often don’t have a defined border and may fade or blend into the skin.
  • Colour – Melanomas may not have a uniform colour, instead having a range of shades or a blotchy appearance.
  • Diameter – Melanomas usually have a dimeter of over 6mm.
  • Evolving/elevation – the mole may change in shape and size over time, or develop a raised area.

Although the ABCDE criteria is helpful in identifying potentially concerning moles, not all melanomas will abide by it. This is why getting regular clinical skin checks is important: a professional has more experience in identifying skin cancer and may be able to spot problems that you can’t.

Sores that do not heal
Redness or pigment which spreads outside the border of a mole to the surrounding skin
Itchiness, tenderness, or pain
Blurry vision, partial loss of sight, or dark spots on the iris.
Changes in texture, oozing, or bleeding from an existing mole

With proper care and protection, your risk of developing melanoma can be significantly reduced.

Since many melanomas are caused by UV radiation, many can be prevented by exercising proper sun safety.

  • Avoid sun exposure during peak hours (10am-4pm).
  • Use sunscreen of at least SPF 30 and reapply as directed.
  • Wear long sleeves, pants, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat where possible.

However, it’s also important to remember that no sun protection measure is completely perfect. Regular skin checks are still important, especially of you have a family history of melanoma and/or other skin cancers.

Diagnosing melanoma

Melanomas are usually diagnosed during a clinical skin check, or when a patient notices a suspicious-looking mole on their own and decides to get it checked by a medical professional. This is why it’s so important to know your skin and perform your own self-checks at home.

If your doctor believes a mole to be suspicious, a biopsy will be taken. This can usually be done during your skin check appointment. Your doctor will use a local anaesthetic to minimise pain and will cut away a small sample of skin using a small blade or punch tool. They will then close the wound with stitches if necessary and will apply a dressing.

The skin sample is then sent to a pathology lab for testing. A diagnosis can usually be confirmed in around a week, and your doctor will contact you to inform you of the results. If a melanoma diagnosis is confirmed, you may be referred to a specialist skin surgeon for further treatment.

The most common treatment for melanoma is surgery: this involves completely removing the cancer from the skin with a 3–4mm margin to prevent it returning. In early stage melanoma, the removal may be done completely through biopsy and not require further intervention.

As melanoma is the type of skin cancer most likely to metastasize, later-stage or more advanced cases may require further treatment. A more invasive surgical procedure, radiation therapies, or immunotherapies may be recommended in conjunction with surgical removal.

Most melanoma excision sites can heal completely in 1-3 weeks, although your overall health and the supplementary treatments used may impact the recovery time. After recovery, it’s best to continue getting regular skin checks to ensure melanoma doesn’t resurface in a different location.

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