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Data analysis highlights melanoma risk

Scientists at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute say a study of melanoma deaths based on the thickness of tumours has reinforced the need for a strong focus on prevention strategies.

QIMR Berghofer’s Professor David Whiteman led the study which found, in terms of total numbers, more people die from thin melanomas (less than one millimetre) than thick melanomas (greater than four millimetres).

The thickness of melanomas in the skin is measured by pathologists following excision.

Generally, as melanomas become thicker there is a greater chance of the cancer spreading.

Professor Whiteman says that although thick melanomas have a poor prognosis and lower survival rates, they make up only a minority of melanomas diagnosed in Queensland.

“We found the huge increases in the numbers of thin melanomas being detected means that, overall, they account for more melanoma deaths than thick tumours.”

The study examined Queensland Cancer Registry data from more than 4,000 melanoma deaths in the two decades from 1990 to 2009.

From 1990 to 1994, thin melanomas accounted for 14% of all melanoma deaths, and that increased to 23% from 2005-2009.

Thick melanomas accounted for 11% of melanoma deaths in the first five years of the study period, and increased to 14% in the last five.

Professor Whiteman says only a small proportion of patients with thin tumours die from their disease, but as the number of cases rise there has been a corresponding increase in the number of deaths.

“This research highlights the message that all melanomas are potentially dangerous,” Professor Whiteman said.

“The statistics should serve to remind us that vigilance is essential to ensure that all melanomas are diagnosed as early as possible, or even better, prevented altogether.”

Researchers from Cancer Council Queensland (CCQ) also worked on the study.

CCQ spokesperson Katie Clift said the research reinforced the crucial messages of prevention and early detection.

“Queensland has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world – all of us need to Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide whenever the UV Index is three or above to best reduce our risk of skin cancer, ” Ms Clift said.

“Research shows that prevention messages, including the Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide campaign, are driving down rates of invasive melanoma in young Queenslanders.

“This research reinforces the necessity for all Queenslanders to get to know their own skin and if they notice a new or changed spot or lesion, to visit their GP immediately.

“Early detection by self-examination or having a doctor check your skin is vital to reduce the burden of melanoma.”

The study has been published today by the Journal of Investigative Dermatology: