by CATHERINE NGUYEN
Melanoma is often referred to as ‘Australia’s national cancer’, and is the third most common cancer in men and women. It is the most serious form of skin cancer, but can be treated effectively with surgery if detected early.
What you should look for
Look for anything new, changing or unusual on all areas of the body. Melanoma can develop anywhere on the skin, regardless of whether the area is exposed to the sun or not. Melanomas typically start on the legs of women, and on the trunk (chest and back) of men. The neck and face are other common sites. Melanoma can also appear on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, or under the nails, so nothing should be ignored.
- NEW – look for any new moles or blemishes that appear, especially after age 21.
- CHANGING – check if your spots are changing in colour, shape, size or texture.
- UNUSUAL – look for spots that are unusual in outline or continuously itch, hurt, crust or bleed for more than 3 weeks.
A simple way to remember the warning signs is to think of the ABCDEs of melanoma:
- A is for Asymmetry – Does the mole or spot have an irregular shape with two parts that look very different?
Most melanomas are asymmetrical. If you draw a line through the middle of the spot, one half does not match the other, unlike the case of a symmetrical common mole.
- B is for Border irregularity – Is the border irregular, ragged, notched or blurred?
Melanoma borders tend to be uneven and may have scalloped or notched edges, while common moles tend to have smoother, more even borders.
- C is for Colour variation – Is the colour uneven or of different shades?
Multiple colours are a warning sign. While benign moles are usually a single shade of brown, a melanoma may have different shades of brown, tan or black. As it develops, the colours red, white or blue may also appear.
- D is for Diameter or Dark – Is the mole or spot larger than the size of a pencil eraser? Is it darker than others?
A typical warning sign is where a lesion is the size of a pencil eraser (about 6 mm, or ¼ inch in diameter) or larger. Some experts say it is also important to look for any lesion, regardless of size, that is darker than others.
- E is for evolving – Has the mole or spot changed during the past few weeks or months?
Any change in size, shape, colour or elevation of a spot on your skin, or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting, may be a warning sign of melanoma.
Another sign to look out for is the Ugly Duckling. This sign is based on the idea that most normal moles on your body are alike, while melanomas stand out like ugly ducklings in comparison. Ugly ducklings may appear to be larger, smaller, lighter or darker, compared to surrounding moles. Stand-alone or isolated lesions without any surrounding moles for comparison are also considered ugly ducklings.
How to check yourself
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that you check your skin from head to toe each month to give yourself the best chance of identifying changes early.
All you need is a bright light, a full-length mirror, a hand mirror, two chairs or stools, a blow-dryer, paper and a pencil.
To perform a thorough self-exam, please follow the 8 steps specified by the Skin Cancer Foundation to inspect your face, scalp, hands, arms, torso, upper back, lower back and legs.
You may wish to take photos for comparison purpose in the future.
It’s important to note that about 20 to 30 percent of melanomas develop in existing moles, while 70 to 80 percent arise on seemingly normal skin.
Identifying potential melanoma early is not easy, but you can greatly improve your chances of survival by looking out for these warning signs and checking with your doctor as soon as possible.
Catherine has been volunteering with Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre since 2017, and joined Solaris Cancer Care as a blog writer in early August 2020. She cared for her father and her husband with cancer, and the experiences changed her life. Catherine developed a passion for researching all matters relating to cancer during her husband’s fight, and is keen to continue building on her knowledge and using it to help others.