What is Melanoma?
Melanoma is one of the three main types of skin cancer and begins in the cells of the skin called melanocytes. Melanocytes produce a dark pigment (melanin) which helps protect the deeper layers of the skin from ultra violet radiation (eg. sunlight). The amount of pigment that is produced varies with skin type. Darker skin tonings give greater protection from the sun however even darker skinned people can still get melanoma. It is when the melanocytes produce melanin in an unregulated or uncontrolled way that melanoma can develop.
As a melanoma begins to grow it is initially confined to the top layers of the skin, however, if left untreated can spread quickly through the deeper layers where it can then enter the lymphatic system or blood stream and travel to almost any part of the body, especially the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, brain and other areas of the skin. It is particularly dangerous when this spread occurs, and if surgery is not possible or is unsuccessful, then treatments are often not effective.
Melanoma can also arise on areas of the skin that are not exposed to the sun.
Development of melanoma
Ultra-violet (UV) radiation from sunlight (and tanning beds) plays a very important role in the development of melanoma and other skin cancers. Research has found that the rates of melanoma in Australia are higher near the coastline and large rivers and it is reasoned that this is due to lifestyle factors, outdoor activity and greater sun exposure. The rates are also higher in Australia's northern states due to the greater intensity of the sun.