“Melanoma is a familiar word to most Australians. But it’s only when melanoma directly impacts our lives that we begin to understand the seriousness of this type of skin cancer.” This is a quote from the website of the Melanoma Institute of Australia.
I’ll certainly vouch for this. When my mother was diagnosed with melanoma about 5 years ago, it turned her life upside down and my brothers and I were thrown into a situation we hadn’t even begun to imagine. A previously healthy, independent lady that spent her 80th birthday exploring the historic ruins of Greek and Turkey in the searing July heat was suddenly given only a short time to live.
I really had no comprehension of the seriousness of the situation or why the doctors were so concerned. Yes, we’d heard a lot about the viciousness of the Australian sun and the prevalence of skin cancer. But hadn’t lots of my friends had “skin cancers” removed one day and been at work or the gym the following day without a care in the world other than sporting a band aid? After all, isn’t the skin something on the surface of our bodies, so we just have to remove the blemish from the top and we’re done.
By no means do I wish to downplay the seriousness of other types of skin cancer, but it was only when my life was impacted by my mother’s melanoma and I started doing some research, that I began to have any comprehension of the aggressiveness of this killer disease.
To save you having to go through copious amounts of information, I have tried to summarise my understanding of the difference types of cancer based on my research. I trust it will give you a better idea than I had of why melanoma is so dangerous and should not be taken lightly.
How common is skin cancer?
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australia. Every year, in Australia:
- skin cancers account for around 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers
- the majority of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun
- GPs have over 1 million patient consultations per year for skin cancer
- the incidence of skin cancer is one of the highest in the world, two to three times the rates in Canada, the US and the UK
- About two in three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70.
What types are there?
Skin cancers can be divided into melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. Whilst almost 770,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are treated each year, less than 14,000 people are diagnosed with the more aggressive melanoma each year.
What are non-melanoma skin cancers?
Non-melanoma skin cancers are the most common cancers, however most are not life-threatening. There are two main types: basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)
This starts in the lower layer of the epidermis (the surface of the skin). It makes up about 70% of non-melanoma skin cancers. A BCC grows slowly over months or years and rarely spreads to other parts of the body. The earlier a BCC is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)
This starts in the upper layer of the epidermis. It accounts for about 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers. SCC may spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.
Melanoma is considered the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It starts in the melanocyte cells of the skin – the bottom layer of the epidermis – but is more likely to spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, brain and bones.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer which usually occurs on the parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun. Rare melanomas can occur inside the eye or in parts of the skin or body that have never been exposed to the sun. Melanoma is more commonly diagnosed in men than women. The risk of being diagnosed with melanoma by age 85 is 1 in 13 for men compared to 1 in 22 for women. Unfortunately, Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world. On average, one Australian will die every five hours from melanoma.
What causes skin cancer?
Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged. Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the most common but not the only cause. As with other skin cancers, Melanoma risk increases with exposure to UV radiation from the sun or other sources such as solariums, particularly with episodes of sunburn (especially during childhood).
Melanoma risk is increased for people who have:
- unprotected sun exposure
- a history of childhood tanning and sunburn
- a pattern of short, intense periods of exposure to UV radiation
- increased numbers of unusual moles (dysplastic naevi)
- depressed immune systems
- a family history of melanoma in a first degree relative
- fair skin, a tendency to burn rather than tan, freckles, light eye colour, light or red hair colour
- had a previous melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer.
Thanks to the Cancer Council of Australia, Cancer Council Victoria and the Melanoma Institute Australia for the valuable information provided on your websites.