Melanoma questions and answers
National Skin Cancer Action Week
This week, November 18 to 24 is the annual National Skin Cancer Action Week, an initiative of Cancer Council Australia and the Australasian College of Dermatologists to raise awareness of all types of skin cancers, the risks of exposure to UV radiation, and the need for sun protection and early skin cancer detection.
In Australia, the skin cancer stats aren’t good: two in three Australians are diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70, and more than 2,000 people in Australia die from skin cancer each year. In addition to the devastating human toll, Cancer Council estimates that Australia spends more than $1 billion per year treating skin cancer.
Education is vital to reducing those figures.
GP Paddy McLisky of Cape Byron Medical Centre is a fellow of the Royal Australia College of General Practitioners with Advanced Certificates in Skin Cancer Medicine/Surgery and Dermatoscopy. He says there are some common myths and misconceptions around skin cancer and melanomas.
Darker skin is immune to melanoma
“Many people believe that darker or olive skin means you are invulnerable to skin cancer and melanoma,” Dr McLisky said. “It’s simply not the case. Bob Marley died from melanoma, and many people with very dark skin are diagnosed every year. While it is true that white Australians whose ancestors came northern European have skin that is not accustomed to or designed for this level of UV radiation, skin cancer does not discriminate. Everyone needs to be vigilant, regardless of skin type.”
Is family history is a risk factor?
“Yes. In melanoma, family history is also an important indicator. If one of you siblings, children or parents has been diagnosed with melanoma before the age of 50, you should consider having a skin check, regardless of whether you see anything of concern on your skin,” Dr McLisky said.
Is melanoma always in a mole?
“No. Most people think melanoma arises as part of a mole, and that isn’t the case,” Dr McLisky said. “At least half of melanomas do not arise as part of a mole, they just grow out of normal looking skin.”
Does melanoma have to be a dark mole?
“No. Many people believe they are looking for a dark or black mole,” Dr McLisky said. “That’s not necessarily the case. Many melanomas have been found by using the ‘ugly duckling’ approach – if a spot on your skin looks different to all the other spots or ‘ugly’ (uneven edges, uneven colour), it is worth having it checked.”
Can I find melanoma myself?
While a skin cancer check with your GP is ideal, Dr McLisky said many patients find their own melanoma and skin cancer. “Checking your own skin is so important,” Dr McLisky said. “You know your own skin better than anyone and may be able to see small changes early, long before your next GP appointment is due.”
What do I need to look for?
Dr McLisky says to look for the spot or mole that looks different, or one that has any of these three features:
-Pink and shiny;
-Brown and ugly (one side is not the same colour as the other side).
Dr McLisky said there is a caveat to this: “Any firm elevated lump that’s growing anywhere on your body needs to be checked out immediately. Things that are changing such as a spot that changes, should be checked out. This doesn’t mean it is cancer, it just needs to be checked.
“The good news is that when skin cancers are detected early, the vast majority can be cured.”
Quick melanoma facts
What is melanoma?
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that grows in the pigment cells of the skin. These pigment cells are called melanocytes, and they are responsible for producing melanin which can aid in protecting the skin from UV light and radiation.
What causes melanoma?
The number one preventable cause of most melanoma is UV radiation from the sun. There are other factors but over exposure to the sun is the big one.
Can melanoma be treated?
In a nutshell, yes. In most cases, if melanoma is caught early, there is a really good chance of effectively treating it. For this to happen you need to be checking your skin regularly.