Is Melanoma a real problem?


Shock, horror headlines in the Aussie media last year claiming that tanning beds kill 43 Australians a year through melanoma alone and are responsible for another 2600 annual skin cancer diagnoses.  That is certainly attention grabbing news.

Some basis for this also comes from a team at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research that has estimated sun beds are responsible for 281 cases of melanoma each year, the deadliest skin cancer.  Overall, 43 of those patients died.

While researching an item on the cancers of women, I came across the also somewhat disquieting figures that Malignant Melanoma has the second fastest increasing incidence of cancer for women.  In fact, the age-standardized rates have risen by 46 percent in the last decade.  Some of the apparent increase may be due to increased surveillance and early detection as well as improved diagnosis, but most is considered to be real and linked to changes in recreational or holiday exposure to UV rays (including sunlight and sunbeds), and we do get the odd bit of sunshine here in Thailand.

I remember the first time I went to a beach in Thailand and saw all these people emerging from the sea fully clothed, that I thought the Thaitanic must have gone down offshore.  However, I later realized that Thai people are not silly when they go fully clothed to the beaches to swim!  It is generally just the pale skinned farangs that go there to fry.

Having come from sub-tropical Queensland, I can tell you that the capital Brisbane is these days considered to be the melanoma capital of the world, and of all the skin cancers you can get, malignant melanoma is the worst.  If ignored and not caught early, it spreads throughout the body and almost all of these sufferers die within 12 months.  The generally accepted time between late diagnosis and death is 10 months.  That is despite heroic (and expensive) treatment.

When we first began to keep statistics on the incidence of melanoma in Australia, it became quickly evident that the further north you went (towards the equator) the greater the numbers of melanomas.  White skin and UV radiation did not go well together.

It did not need rocket science to see that perhaps the reason the indigenous native aboriginals did not have the same incidence of melanoma as the white settlers was linked to skin color.

However, human nature being as perverse as it is, the white folks want to be brown (which is why solariums are popular in Australia) and the brown folks want to be white (which is why whitening creams are the number one cosmetic cream sold in Thailand).

However, the Thai people, even with their naturally protective brown skin, do stay out of the sun as much as possible (standing in a line in the shadow of the telephone pole for example), and have reduced their incidence of possible melanoma.  That is while we farangs, with our totally unsuitable pink one-button birthday suits, stand in the sun’s rays as much as possible.  Having myself emigrated to Australia from sunless Scotland as a young teenager, I can remember my Mum chasing me out of the house to get my shirt off and get a “healthy tan”!  How times and our knowledge have changed!  And we can thank all those medical professionals who have kept the statistics to be used by the epidemiologists who could then impart these findings to us all.  Statistics which we hopefully take on board to take ourselves out of the danger.

The bad news about malignant melanoma you have already read above, but there is some good news.  Protect yourself by covering up and using a very strong sun blocker of SPF 30 and above any time you are at the beach.  And re-apply after swimming each time.

However, if you have any dark colored ‘spot’ that has changed shape, color, or become itchy you should get some expert advice from a specialist dermatologist.  It is too dangerous to ‘wait and see’.  Catch it early enough, before it begins to spread, and you can escape!

I get my spots and dots checked each year and have had a couple removed “just in case!”