What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a cancer that develops in the skins pigment cells (melanocytes). These cells make the pigment that gives the skin its natural colour and produce melanin to help protect the skin from UV radiation (sunlight). Melanocytes are usually spread throughout the skin, but when grown in a cluster they cause moles.

When the melanocytes in a mole begin to grow and divide in an uncontrolled or unregulated way, they either expand outwards or down into the lower layers of the skin, creating a melanoma.

Melanoma will grow very quickly if left untreated. It can spread to the lower part of your skin (dermis), enter the lymphatic system or bloodstream, and then spread to other parts of the body e.g. lungs, liver, brain or bone.

What causes melanoma?

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. The main cause of melanoma is overexposure to UV radiation from the sun or frequent use of solarium tanning machines. Many people mistakenly believe UV radiation is not as strong on cooler or overcast days, however this is not the case. Sun exposure that doesn’t result in burning can also cause damage to skin cells and increase your risk of developing skin cancer.

Risk factors that increase the chances of melanoma include people with fair skin, a high mole count, family history and a pattern of sunburns throughout life, especially during childhood. Evidence suggests that regular exposure to UV radiation year after year can also lead to skin cancer.

Melanoma can occur anywhere on the skin, even in areas that receive little or no sun exposure e.g. inside the mouth or on the soles of your feet.

Is melanoma inherited?

Our risk of melanoma is hereditary – strongly affected by our genetic background. Rarely, a specific faulty gene that causes high melanoma risk may be passed from one generation to the next.

For most people it is the combination of a lot of genetic differences that change our risk – our different skin colours, the way we react to the sun, the number of our moles, and other invisible effects of our genetic makeup.

Can melanoma be prevented?

The most effective way to prevent melanoma is to practice sun safety at all times (especially with children). This means avoiding sun exposure during the hottest parts of the day and protecting your skin with sunscreen, clothing and a hat whenever you’re outside (even on cloudy days!).

Skin cancers rarely hurt and are much more frequently seen than felt. In fact, you should develop a regular habit of checking your skin for new spots and changes to existing freckles or moles.

Regular skin checks at least once every 12 months also maximise the chances of picking up melanoma early. The sooner a skin cancer is identified, the melanoma can be effectively treated and gives you a better chance of avoiding surgery, potential disfigurement or even death.

Pro Medical SA

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