Melanoma is by far the most dangerous form of skin cancer. In Australia, about 4% of men and 3% of women will have one in their lifetime.
What is often not well understood is why melanoma is so dangerous – after all, why would a cancer on your skin be such a problem? The answer is that, for reasons that are mostly unknown, melanoma has an amazing and devastating ability to spread throughout the body. It usually starts as what seems to be like a harmless-looking mole on your skin, but can quickly spread to other organs such as brain, lungs and liver.
So, people who die of melanoma don’t die from skin cancer on their skin, they die of skin cancer that has spread somewhere else. An example of this is legendary AFL coach Tom Hafey. He had a melanoma removed from his back in 1990, then in 2014 later it came back in his brain, causing his death. He didn’t die of a brain tumour, he died of skin cancer in his brain.
In Australia, melanoma kills over 1,600 people per year, and this number is rising rapidly.
Here are some images of three melanomas, with overview on the left and dermatoscopic (extreme close-up) views on the right. All of these melanomas are brown to black, but be aware that sometimes melanomas are pink, red or even blue.
The crucial factor that determines how dangerous a melanoma is when it’s found is it’s depth. Thin melanomas that exist only in the upper layer of skin – the epidermis – have almost no risk of spreading.
But deeper melanomas that have already invaded into the dermis can spread, and the likelihood of them spreading is proportional to how deep they are when they are removed – deeper is worse. So if you notice a new or changing mole, don’t delay getting it checked – a skin cancer Doctor may well save your life.