About three years ago, my brother Jonathan had a melanoma removed from his back. Many years before that operation, he had some moles removed from his back. I thought melanoma was just a worse type of mole. My brother had regular checkups following the operation, and last August, a scan revealed that a cancer had started in his liver. Despite two rounds of chemotheraphy he lost that battle and died in March this year.
My childhood friend William Taylor, had a melanoma removed from his back about five years ago, and so far, his regular checkups show he is clear of any problems.
And just last month, I read in the North Shore Times about 26 year old Michael Robins, a finance manager at Lexus here in Chatsood, who died of melanoma.
So what is melanoma?
Melanoma is skin cancer and can spread through the whole body. When this happens, it is usually fatal. Melanoma is the most common cancer among males aged between 25 and 54 and women aged between 15 and 29. Melanoma is a major Australian health problem. Every year over 8,000 Australians are diagnosed with melanoma and more than 1,000 of those will die from the disease.
Sun exposure is the main cause of these cancers. Australians have the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, with two out of every three people developing at least one skin cancer during their lifetime.
The situation is not all doom and gloom because if melanoma is detected early, it can be nearly always cured. Australia is a sun-drenched country and outdoor activities are part of our lifestyle. The image of a sun-tanned bikini-clad lady, or the bronzed Australian male is NOT something you should aspire to. Being exposed to excessive sunshine could kill you.
There are two things you can do to minimise your chances of succumbing to this deadly disease. Protecting yourself against the sun, and checking your skin.
The first strategy is to minimise exposure to the sun. Your white blood cells, part of your immune system, will kill any tissue in your body that is becoming cancerous. Ultraviolet radiation prevents the cells from doing their work, so being in the sun ruins the best natural defence you have. Stay out of the sun as much as possible.
If you do go out in the sun, use Maximum protection sunscreen (broad spectrum 30+). Application of sunscreen should be as routine as cleaning your teeth. When you go outside to play tennis or golf, work in your garden or watching your children play sport, apply sunscreen. Sunscreens are not a means of allowing more time in the sun. Extending your exposure time to the sun negates the benefits of using the sunblock.
Sunblock should be used in Spring, Summer and Autumn. It should be used in winter during prolonged outdoor exposure. Sunscreen does not give total protection, so other methods of sun avoidance must be observed as well. Wear a broad-brimmed hat when you go outside, especially when doing activities such as gardening or hanging out the washing. These activities expose you to more sun that you realise.
Ensure your clothing is protective. Does it hurt to look at the sun through the clothing?
You should examine freckles and moles looking for warning signs. These usually have a defined regular border and are symmetric in shape. Be alarmed if the shape is irregular. They should have regular, symmetrical shades of one colour. There should not be red, black, grey, white or blue colours in the brown spot.
Melanoma changes over time. The best way to detect this is to have a set of comprehensive whole skin photographs as a comparison. Get the complete surface of your body photographed every six months. This can be done at home with a digital camera. Early detection and treatment results in a cure.
Women get melanome most commonly on their legs, men on their backs. Photographs are the best defence. Most importantly you should see a doctor or skin specialist for assessment.
Protecting yourself against the sun, and regular monitoring of your skin will take you a long way to minimising your chance of becoming another melanoma statistic.