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Melanoma is the most serious form of cancer that develops in the skin’s pigment cells (melanocytes). Melanocytes produce melanin to help protect the skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation . When melanocyte cells combine together in the skin during childhood or adolescence they form a mole.

Most moles are quite safe, however sometimes the melanocytes in a mole begin to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way. If they start to grow in a unregulated way, either expanding outwards or down into the lower layers of the skin, they can become a melanoma.

The main preventable cause of melanoma is overexposure to UV radiation. There are many risk factors that increase the chances of melanoma, including people with fair skin, a high mole count, family history and a pattern of sunburns throughout life, especially during childhood.

Although melanoma is associated with aging and sun exposure, it can develop at any time on anyone.  Microscopically, melanoma starts in the lowest layers of the epidermis, expanding downward into the dermis, where it can metastasise (spread) through lymphatic and blood vessels, gaining access to the rest of the body and potentially becoming fatal. Early detection via a complete skin exam performed at least annually by a dermatologist is your best defence.

The ABCDEs of Melanoma

These are important guidelines to keep in mind when checking your skin for melanoma.

  • A: Asymmetry – the spot isn’t symmetrical and may have an odd shape
  • B: Border – look for a border that isn’t sharp or defined
  • C: Colour – the colour is not uniform and may have different shades of red, brown, or black
  • D: Diameter – the spot is the sizeof a pencil eraser or larger
  • E: Evolution – the spot changes over time