Melanoma is responsible for most skin cancer deaths and is unfortunately on the increase, but over 95% of melanomas can be cured if they are detected and treated early. Australia has the highest rate of melanoma in the world; one in 14 Australian males and 1 in 22 females will develop melanoma in their lifetime (to age 85).
Who is at risk?
Melanoma can occur at any age but is rare before puberty. Individuals who are at highest risk are those who:
- are over 55 years old (6 out of 10 melanomas occur in people aged >55)
- have fair skin that burns easily, freckles and does not tan
- have had severe sunburns in the past, especially in childhood
- have many moles on their body, especially irregular moles (called "dysplastic naevi")
- have naturally fair or red hair, with blue or green eyes
- have a family history of melanoma
- have been previously diagnosed with other types of skin cancers (including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma)
The development of melanoma is heavily related to UV exposure. Painful or blistering sunburns increase your risk of melanoma. Intermittent sun exposure (such as sun holidays) increase your risk more than stable levels of sun exposure. Solarium use may increase your risk of melanoma, so avoid sun beds and tanning salons.
A risk calculator has been developed that allows Australians to calculate your risk of developing melanoma in the next 5 years.
Follow the Australian Cancer Council advice: avoid sunburn by minimising sun exposure when the SunSmart UV Alert exceeds 3 and especially between 10am and 3pm when UV levels reach their peak. Seek shade, wear a hat that covers the head, neck and ears, wear sun protective clothing and close-fitting sunglasses, and wear an SPF30+ sunscreen. You can use the Sunsmart UV alert guide in the left hand column of this website to find out what today's UV levels and sun protection recommendations are - it can also be seen at the sunsmart.com.au website or you can download an iPhone app.
The Australian Cancer Council recommends that all adults, particularly those aged 40 and over, should:
- become familiar with their skin
- check all areas of their skin, including skin not normally exposed to the sun
- look for changes in shape, colour or size, or a new spot – if you notice anything unusual, see your doctor straight away
- seek assistance from others to check difficult to see areas, such as their back.
You should have your skin checked at least once a year; if you are at high risk of skin cancer then checking your skin at least every 3 months is wise. This Body Map and the Sunsmart 5 steps for skin self-examination are very useful tools to help you perform a skin self-examination. You will also need a mirror, and many people find that doing a skin check with a close friend or family member makes it easier to see difficult areas (like behind your ears, and on your back). To help you know what you are looking for Sunsmart has produced a 2 page PDF guide to skin cancers, warning signs and harmless spots that can be viewed here: How to check for skin cancers.
If you have any concerns about your skin always seek assistance from a qualified health professional. For skin lesions where there is doubt or uncertainty a biopsy is a reliable method of determining what treatment you need.
What does a melanoma look like?
Melanomas do not all look the same, as you can see from the images on this page. They often have the following features:
- Border irregularity
- Colour variation
- Diameter (large - greater than 6mm)
- Elevated (although early melanomas can be completely flat)
Melanomas are not all brown, black or pigmented. Some melanomas are pink.
Melanomas (left) versus normal moles (right)