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Melanoma: from little things, deadly things can grow

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When it comes to one of the nation’s biggest killers, small can be every bit as deadly as big, researchers have warned.

A joint study by the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the Cancer Council Queensland has found that that people are more likely to die from melanomas less than one millimetre in diameter than melanomas greater than four millimetres. 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, melanoma is the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in Australia, with 11,405 cases of melanoma diagnosed in 2010, accounting for nearly one in ten cancer diagnoses.

The QIMR Berghofer study reviewed Queensland Cancer registry data involving more than 4000 melanoma deaths between 1990 and 2009.

Thin melanomas (less than one millimetre in depth) accounted for 23 per cent of melanoma fatalities between 2005 and 2009, while during the same period thick melanomas (greater than four millimetres) accounted for only 14 per cent of deaths.

Lead researcher, Professor David Whiteman, from QIMR Berghofer said 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,” Professor Whiteman said.

“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.

“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.”

Cancer Council Queensland spokesperson Katie Clift urged people to take steps to protect themselves from the sun whenever the UV index reached three or more, in order to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer.

“Early detection through self-examination or having a doctor check your skin is vital to reduce the burden of melanoma,” Ms Clift said.

The study was published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

Kirsty Waterford