Melanoma Skin Cancer : Getting to Know the Signs

Dr Penny Lim - North Sydney & North Shore Dermatologist

Skin melanoma is the 19th most common type of cancer worldwide. It is also considered more dangerous than non-melanoma skin cancers (i.e. basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer) because of the likelihood of it spreading to other parts of the body if it remains undetected at its early stages.

Australia happens to be the capital of skin cancer, with two out of three Australians likely to have skin cancer by age 70. In 2018, Australia also had the highest rate of melanoma in men. However, this doesn’t mean you should be rushing to get melanoma treatment in Sydney right away.

Skin cancers are more frequently seen than felt, and they rarely hurt. But if you are the typical sun-loving Australian, it’s essential to get to know your skin and what is normal for you, so that you notice any changes as early as possible.

Early signs and symptoms of melanoma

One of the most common signs of melanoma is the formation of a new spot on the skin or an existing mole which appears to be changing. Of course, not all skin spots are suspect; but the best way to determine whether or not a skin growth may be melanoma is by using the ABCDE method:

  •             Asymmetry: The shape of the mole is uneven or irregular.
  •             Border: The edges are irregular, notched, or blurred.
  •             Colour: The mole is unevenly coloured, and may include various shades of black or brown, and perhaps even patches of red, white, pink, or blue.
  •             Diameter: The spot would be bigger than six millimetres across (larger than the size of a pencil eraser); however, some melanomas could be smaller than this.
  •             Evolving: The spot changes in size, shape, colour or texture.

Although these are more common signs of melanoma, they do not necessarily cover every type of suspicious skin growths. So, it’s important to always take note of any changes in your skin or new spots or growths that look different from your other moles.

Other possible symptoms of melanoma

Aside from applying the ABCDE method, you should also be on the lookout for the following:

  •             Sores that don’t heal
  •             Any redness, swelling, or pigmentation which spreads beyond the border of the spot to the surrounding skin
  •             Visible changes in the appearance of a mole such as a lump or bump as well as bleeding, oozing, or scaling
  •             Itchiness, skin tenderness, or pain
  •             Blurry or partial loss of vision, or the appearance of pigments in the iris which appear to be whitish, tan, or dark brown

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that cancer symptoms vary, and that not all moles are suspect, or that all melanomas start as moles. Moreover, although melanomas usually develop in parts of the skin exposed to the sun, they can also grow in areas that do not or rarely get any sun exposure.

Aside from checking the limbs, trunk, face and neck, the soles of the feet, palms of the hands, folds between the toes, the skin underneath the fingernails and toenails, the genitals, and the eyes also need to be examined.

The estimated five-year survival rate of melanoma patients who get early-stage diagnosis and treatment is 98 percent. If the disease has progressed into the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate falls to 64 percent; but when it has metastasised to other organs, the survival rate drops further to only 23 percent.

Your best recourse for early diagnosis is to visit a skin cancer clinic in Sydney (or wherever you reside).

Melanoma risk factors

Melanoma skin cancer starts from the melanocytes, which are melanin-forming cells found in parts of the body like the skin, the eyes, and inner ears. When melanocytes and grow out of control, melanoma develops.

The exact cause for this phenomenon is unknown, but there are certain factors that can increase your risk of developing melanoma. They are as follows:

  •             Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. This includes direct sunlight as well as the use of tanning beds. Early exposure increases the risk, especially if you frequently suffered from sunburns as a child.
  •             Age. The risk of developing melanoma increases with age – just like in most types of cancers. Almost half of newly-diagnosed cases of melanoma involve patients aged 55 to 74. However, it’s also the most common type of cancer affecting women aged 25 to 29.
  •             Weakened immune system. Conditions and infections that lead to immune system suppression can make you susceptible to melanoma. This is why organ transplant recipients who are usually given medication that weakens the immune system (to prevent organ rejection), as well as HIV patients with low immunity, have a higher risk of developing melanoma.
  •             Skin tone or complexion. Fair-skinned Caucasians have a higher risk of developing skin cancer overall, not just melanoma. Redheads, blondes, blue- and green-eyed and freckled individuals are also at a higher risk, as well as people who burn easily.
  •             Moles. As discussed earlier, unusual skin spots or moles may signal melanoma.
  •             Genetics or family history. People with one or both parents or a sibling diagnosed with melanoma are at risk of developing it as well. Individuals suffering from a genetic skin condition affecting the skin’s ability to repair UV damage called xeroderma pigmentosum are also at risk of developing melanoma at an early age.

Early detection is key

As with any other disease, the best way to increase your chances of successful treatment and survival is getting an early-stage diagnosis. This way, you can avail of early treatment and make necessary lifestyle changes to help improve your condition.

Melanoma skin cancer is a fatal disease, but it is by no means an insurmountable obstacle. With early detection and proper treatment, you have better chances of overcoming it.