What is a melanoma?
Learn about this dangerous type of skin cancer that's one of the most common in Australia.
Alexander Pan avatar
Written by Alexander Pan
Updated over a week ago

Skin cancer occurs when skin cells grow abnormally, generally due to overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. There are three major types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma, which we'll focus on in this article.

Melanoma is projected to be Australia's third most common cancer with an estimated 18,000 cases expected to be diagnosed in 2022. It is estimated that a person has a 1 in 17 risk of being diagnosed with this form of skin cancer by the age of 85. As this is such a deadly cancer, we'll be taking a look at what it is, what the signs are, what causes it, what treatments are available, and what prevention strategies are available.

Just remember that if you need support or someone to talk to, our Sonder support team is available 24/7 to chat whenever you need it.

What is melanoma?

A melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer and it develops in the skin's pigment cells (known as melanocytes which colour the skin). This cancer starts as a spot on the skin but can spread to distant organs like the lungs, liver, and brain via the blood and lymphatic system if left untreated.

Signs of melanoma

A melanoma often has no symptoms, which makes it difficult to initially spot. Usually, the first sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new spot or an existing mole that changes in appearance. These changes include:

  • Colour - A mole may change in colour, have different colour shades or become blotchy

  • Size - A mole may appear to get bigger

  • Shape - A mole may have an irregular shape, may increase in height or not be symmetrical

  • Elevation - The mole may develop a raised area

  • Itching or bleeding.

Diagnosis of melanoma involves having a doctor or dermatologist conduct a physical examination to identify any suspicious spots and moles. As it's not always possible to determine whether a mole or lump is cancerous just by looking at it, a skin biopsy may be performed. This is where part of or all of the spot is removed and sent for further study.

If a melanoma is diagnosed, additional tests may be needed if surgery is required or to see if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. These tests may include blood tests, x-rays, ultrasound scans, MRI scans, CT scans, bone scans, or a lymph node biopsy.

What causes melanoma?

Almost all skin cancers are caused by overexposure to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources. When unprotected skin is exposed to UV radiation, the structure of the cells starts changing. Too much UV radiation causes the skin to be permanently damaged and will only worsen with each exposure.

Risk of getting a melanoma

Anyone can get skin cancer but it is more common as you get older. The risk of melanoma is increased for those who have:

  • Unprotected sun exposure

  • A history of tanning and sunburn, especially during childhood and adolescence

  • Lots of moles

  • Atypical moles

  • Already had a skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma (BCC) or squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

  • Fair skin, red hair, blue eyes or skin that burns easily

  • A family history of melanoma, especially if they developed it at a young age (i.e. less than 40)

  • Certain genetic variations that can be inherited in families.

Treatment for melanoma

There are five stages in which melanoma is classified and each stage has its own treatment pathway:

  • In situ or Stage 0 - The tumour is confined to the cells in the top layer (epidermis) of the skin. The melanoma has not invaded deeper layers (dermis).

    • Treatment - Surgical removal.

  • Stage 1 - Tumour can be up to 2 mm in thickness without ulceration, or up to 1 mm in thickness with ulceration.

    • Treatment - Surgical removal and sentinel lymph node biopsy may be considered to look for spread of melanoma to lymph nodes.

  • Stage 2 - Tumour thicker than 2 mm with or without ulceration, and tumours between 1–2 mm with ulceration.

    • Treatment - Surgical removal and sentinel lymph node biopsy may be considered to look for spread of melanoma to lymph nodes.

  • Stage 3 - Tumour can be any thickness and has spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissues.

    • Treatment - Surgical removal and sentinel lymph node biopsy may be considered to look for spread of melanoma to lymph nodes. Additional drug and radiation therapies may be considered.

  • Stage 4 - Tumour can be any thickness and has spread to distant lymph nodes or sites such as the lung, liver, and brain.

    • Treatment - Surgery and/or drug therapies, including immunotherapy and targeted therapy, may be recommended. Radiation therapy may be used.

The most common treatment for Stage 0, 1 or 2 (early stage) melanoma is surgery. If caught early, 90 per cent of melanomas can be treated with simple surgery alone.

For Stage 3 or 4 (advanced) melanoma, it may be recommended to have a combination of different treatments including surgery, drug therapy, and radiation.

Your doctor will recommend the best treatment option based on the stage of the melanoma and other factors such as age and general health.

Prevention of getting melanoma

Skin cancer is preventable so it's important to stay safe and to know your skin so you can notice any changes and can react quickly. Make sun protection a top priority and make sure you:

  • Wear sun-protective clothing that covers your shoulders, neck, arms, legs and body.

  • Wear a hat that shades your face, neck, and ears.

  • Wear wrap-around sunglasses.

  • Use SPF 50+ or higher sunscreen that's broad-spectrum and water-resistant.

  • Seek shade whenever possible, especially during the hottest part of the day.

  • Get regular skin cancer checks from a specialist to ensure you have that extra surveillance of your skin

If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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