Melanomas develop from the pigment cells in the skin (from "melanocytes"). Melanoma is responsible for most skin cancer deaths and is unfortunately on the increase. 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). It is one of the most dangerous forms of skin cancer, which means that early diagnosis is extremely important, as early treatment is usually curative.
Melanomas are heavily related to UV exposure, but importantly melanomas can occur in areas of the body that are never exposed to the sun (including the anus and inside the mouth). Melanomas can also occur in people with very dark skin.
Who is at risk?
Melanomas can occur at any age but are 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)
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.
A risk calculator has been developed that allows Australians to calculate your risk of developing melanoma in the next 5 years. Click here for the calculator developed for members of the general public. Click here for the calculator developed for health professionals. These calculators were developed with generous funding from the Emily Tapp Melanoma Foundation.
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.
What can be done about melanoma?
Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, but over 95% of melanomas can be cured - if they are diagnosed and treated early. So if you notice something different on your skin or you are unsure about something then see your doctor immediately.