Did you know May is Melanoma Awareness Month?  Australia has one of the highest rates of Melanoma in the world.  Melanoma is commonly referred to as “Australia’s National Cancer”.  It is the most common cancer in the 20-30 age group and is potentially the most deadly. Importantly however, with early detection, it can be prevented.  Unprotected exposure to the sun’s harmful rays increases the risk of skin cancer dramatically. There are four common types of skin cancers:

  1. Squamous cell carcinoma
  2. Basal cell carcinoma
  3. Merkel cell carcinoma
  4. Melanoma

Squamous cell carcinoma develops in the squamous cells in the epidermis. Although this type of skin cancer is generally treatable and not life-threatening, it can be aggressive and spread to other areas of the body if not treated correctly. A squamous cell carcinoma usually presents as a red nodule or a flat sore that is rough, scaly and doesn’t heal over time. 

Basal cell carcinoma begins in the basal cells which is a type of cell in the skin that produces new cells as the old ones die off. Basal carcinoma commonly presents itself as a transparent bump or a brown/black lesion that does not go away and occurs to areas of the skin that have had the most exposure to the sun. Basal cell carcinomas are generally  caused by long-term exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight. 

Merkel cell carcinoma appear as flesh-colored or red moles that grow surprisingly fast. Merkel cell carcinomas usually thrive on patches of the skin constantly exposed to sunlight, including the face, shoulders, and scalp.

Melanoma is the most serious of the four cancers and develops in the cells that produce melanin (the pigment that gives your skin its colour). Unfortunately, Melanoma can be life threatening and is increasing in people under 40 years of age. A change in a mole or a growth on the skin is usually how melanoma develops and presents itself. A ‘normal’ mole is generally tan or brown in colour and has a smooth surface, with many appearing in childhood. A change in appearance of moles over time is quite common, so it is important to always have regular skin checks to ensure these changes aren’t something more sinister like melanoma. Melanoma can be hidden in very unexpected areas, like the mouth, eye or under toenails or fingernails. The risk of melanoma seems to be increasing in people under 40. In Australia, men are twice as likely to die from melanoma than women.

Skin cancer doesn't discriminate, however there are some factors that may increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Factors include:

  • Fair skin
  • A history of sunburn
  • Excessive UV light exposure
  • A large presence of moles 
  • A family history of melanoma
  • A weakened immune system

UV rays from the sun can cause long term damage to your skin in under 10 minutes. Sun protection is absolutely necessary in Australia. Wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 50 and wearing protective clothing, like a long sleeved shirt, a hat and sunglasses can all help protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. It is critically important to start practising sun safety habits from an early age because UV exposure is cumulative and does damage over time. It is also very important to have regular skin checks with skin specialists and to be always monitoring any change in moles.

This month start a conversation with your family, friends or colleagues about melanoma and the importance of daily sun protection.  This could be a lifesaving conversation!