What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocyte cells in the epidermis of the skin. These are the cells that make the melanin that results in your skin colour.

Overexposure to UV radiation causes more than 95% of skin cancers. By avoiding over exposure to the sun's UV rays you can reduce your risk of skin cancer.  

Why is melanoma dangerous?

It is by far the most serious and dangerous type of skin cancer, because it can spread easily to other organs in the body.

When it spreads, the cancer extends downwards from the epidermis and can invade healthy tissue such as nearby lymph nodes, or it can get into your bloodstream. This allows it to easily spread to other parts of the body.  

So even if a melanoma is cut out, the cancer can reappear months or years later, often in your lungs, liver or brain.

Preventing melanoma

A melanoma only 1mm deep can get into your bloodstream and spread, so detecting melanoma early is important.

The good news is that nearly all melanoma is preventable by avoiding over exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Melanoma develops on the skin so, by checking your skin and being aware of any changes, melanomas can be detected before they have the chance to spread.

The other piece of good news is that treatments are improving and survival rates for melanoma are high in Australia. Preventing melanoma altogether is better than needing treatment however.

Find out more about preventing skin cancer.

Who is at greatest risk?

While melanomas can occur in anyone, some people are at much greater risk. People who should take particular care have:

  • Fair skin—people with this complexion are particularly susceptible to melanoma, especially if their skin burns quickly. People with fair skin are likely to have red or light coloured hair and blue or green eyes; their skin is also likely to freckle, and they may have many moles.
  • Experienced short bursts of extreme exposure—this may be especially harmful in the development of melanoma so extreme care should be taken if you spend most of your days indoors and are then outside on weekends or during holidays.
  • Experienced multiple sun burns during childhood to early adulthood—this is when you’re most likely to cause damage to your skin.

Growing up in Australia means a greater risk of developing skin cancer. In fact, two out of three Australians will be treated for skin cancer during their lifetime.

If you are concerned about a mole or lesion on your body, talk to your doctor. For more information find out how to Detect skin cancer early.