A stitch in time really could save your life
The prime objective of the annual EuroMelanoma campaign, which was conceived at the turn of the millennium, is to raise public awareness about this potentially fatal form of skin cancer, considered the most dreaded form of cutaneous malignancy.
Incidence rates of melanoma continue to rise among Caucasian populations.
The single most important cause of melanoma is injudicious sun exposure, particularly repeated sunburn.
Those having a fair complexion are especially prone to ultraviolet damage – be it from the sun or from artificial sources such as sunbeds. The same can be said for children and adolescents.
Biologically speaking, sun damage sustained early in life is irreversible and undoubtedly increases one’s predisposition to subsequently develop melanoma.
Global efforts to educate the public on primary prevention of melanoma have intensified over the past 20 years.
It takes decades for such initiatives to hopefully achieve significant changes in public behaviour and attitude concerning sun exposure and sunbathing.
Consequently it will take even longer for any appreciable positive epidemiological trends to hopefully become apparent, due to the fact that it takes several decades for the cellular effects of ultraviolet damage to translate into cases of melanoma within people’s bodies.
In the meantime, health authorities around the world have been focusing on the importance of early detection.
As in the case of any form of cancer, diagnosing melanoma early significantly enhances the chances of cure.
Such a strategy is already bearing fruit, as improving survival rates of melanoma cases in many different parts of the world have shown.
The theme for this year’s EuroMelanoma campaign is Beat Melanoma – Spot The Difference. One major advantage is the skin is an external organ, which readily lends itself to observation and scrutiny.
Unlike cancers that affect internal organs, one does not require sophisticated diagnostic equipment to diagnose melanoma, other than an experienced clinical eye and perhaps a magnifying tool.
It rests with the individual to seek early dermatological advice whenever one notices changes in a mole or other cutaneous lesion. Time lost this early may be irretrievable.
However, one should not get alarmed if hair grows out of a mole, or if a mole gradually becomes more raised and fleshy over the years in the absence of the suspicious signs listed above.
Let us hope that, armed with such knowledge, the Maltese population continues to benefit from the currently improved survival rates for melanoma.
The only treatment that can really make a difference in surviving a melanoma is adequate surgical removal at a suitably early stage.
Hence, a stitch in time may well and truly save your life.
The stages of malignant melanoma
Remember the ABCDE rule to help distinguish melanoma from a benign mole. A suspicious appearance is indicated by:
Asymmetry (a non-symmetrical shape);
Borders that are irregular;
Colourful moles or blemishes that contain different shades;
Diameter greater than six millimetres (combined with the other criteria);
Evolving mole (recent change in colour, size, shape or spontaneous itching, bleeding or crusting).
• Dr Scerri is also senior lecturer at the University of Malta.
Types of skin cancer
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. All are linked to sunlight.
Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are less serious and make up 95 per cent of all cases. Also called non-melanoma skin cancers, they are curable if treated early.
Melanoma, made up of abnormal skin pigment cells called melanocytes, is the most serious form of skin cancer and causes 75 per cent of all skin cancer deaths.
Left untreated, it can spread to other organs and is difficult to control.
Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer, surpassing lung, breasts, colorectal and prostate cancer. It is the most common in the 20 to 39 age group.
It is estimated that approximately 85 per cent of cases are caused by too much sun.
Spot the signs, SOON
The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a new mole or skin lesion or a change in an existing mole.
Basal cell carcinoma may appear as a small, smooth, pearly or waxy bump on the face, ears and neck, or as a flat pink, red or brown lesion on the trunk or arms and legs.
Squamous cell carcinoma can appear anywhere as a firm, red nodule or a rough, scaly flat lesion that may bleed and become crusty.
Melanoma usually appears as a pigmented patch or bump. It may resemble a normal mole, but usually has a more irregular appearance.
Worldwide, doctors diagnose about 160,000 new cases of melanoma every year.