What is melanoma?
Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that starts from the melanocytes, the cells in the skin that produce melanin, the skin pigment or colour.
Types of skin cancer
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the Australian population. There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma. Melanoma is the least common, but the most serious.
Basal cell cancer (BCC)
BCC is the most common form of skin cancer and appears as a small pale 'pearl like' lump on the skin which grows very slowly to eventually become a small ulcer.
Squamous cell cancer (SCC)
SCC is the second most common cancer on the skin and it usually appears initially as a small flaky area (keratosis) but after a few months becomes lumpy and red. This condition is very common in older Australians with sun damaged skin and only a small portion of keratoses ever become cancers .
BCC and SCC are relatively easily treated. In the early stages cryotherapy (freezing) is commonly used but when they become larger or deeper, surgical removal is the treatment of choice. In recent years cytotoxic (cell killing) creams have also become generally used and are quite effective for small skin cancers.
Melanoma is the least common over skin cancers, but has a higher risk of spreading throughout the body if it is not diagnosed early and treated.
Melanoma normally starts from a 'mole', a pigmented spot but can arise from normal skin. The mole will change color, usually developing darkening which eventually will become blue-black in color. However it is important to note that some melanomas do not have of these pigment changes and only the rapid growth of a lump on the skin raises suspicion that a melanoma might be developing. These melanomas are called 'amelanotic' meaning no pigment is seen. Any change in a mole occurring over two to three months should be reported to the doctor for diagnosis.
Melanoma grows quickly. If it is not treated, it may spread to the lower layer of skin, where cancer cells can escape and be carried to other parts of the body or lymph vessels.
Because it is on the skin it is easy to diagnose early, and because it is closely associated with excessive sunlight exposure it is possible to prevent at least 80% of melanomas.
In Australia, 90% of people who get the melanoma did not die from it. This is because the melanoma is diagnosed early and removed successfully.