Preventative Tips

How sun damage can lead to melanoma

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Team MoleMap Creator
Posted 23/01/19
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Most of us have had too much sun at some stage in our lives – either from getting sunburnt as a child or teen, using sunbeds frequently, or from working or playing outdoors a lot. But did you know that long-term sun damage can increase your chances of getting melanoma? And conversely, did you know that short, intense bursts of sun exposure can too?1

In this article, we look at the two main types of melanoma caused by sun damage – what signs to look for and measures you can take to avoid it.

1. Melanoma and chronic sun exposure
If you’ve spent a lot of time in the sun over many years, chances are your skin has been ‘sun damaged’ – that is, it shows the effects of long-term sun exposure such as dryness, wrinkles and sun spots. In New Zealand, a type of melanoma known as ‘lentigo maligna melanoma’ often affects people whose skin is sun damaged. It tends to affect older people, especially those aged 60 years plus, and is more common in men.

Tending to be slow-growing and thin at diagnosis, this type of melanoma often presents itself on the head and neck and may result in several melanomas. It usually occurs in people who’ve been exposed to the sun over a long period of time – especially those who work or play outdoors regularly such as builders, farmers, gardeners, boaties and surfers.

Lentigo Maligna Melanoma 600

Lentigo maligna melanoma, most commonly caused by long-term, chronic sun damage

The exact cause of lentigo maligna melanoma is unknown, but sun exposure is the biggest risk factor for developing it. That puts people with sun-damaged skin and those who spend a lot of time outside at higher risk. Other risk factors include:

  • having fair or light skin
  • family history of skin cancer
  • being male
  • being over 60 years old
  • having a history of non-cancerous or pre-cancerous skin spots

2. Melanoma and intermediate sun exposure

Conversely, melanoma can also affect people who actually don’t spend a lot of time outdoors. This type of melanoma is associated with being sunburnt earlier in life, tends to affect younger adults and is more common in women.

Often, it affects fair-skinned people who have lots of moles and most often occurs at sites of intermittent, intense sun exposure, especially on the trunk in males (40%) and on the legs of females (also 40%).2 It usually occurs in the skin of people who’ve been exposed to lots of sun occasionally, for example during sunny holidays spent sunbathing or sailing – or those who’ve used sunbeds frequently.

This type of melanoma is known as ‘superficial spreading melanoma’ and it can affect several members of one family who have a genetic tendency to have large and odd-looking (atypical) moles as well as melanoma.

Superficial Spreading Melanoma

Superficial spreading melanoma: often caused by intense, intermittment sun exposure

Superficial spreading melanoma often appears as a slow-growing or changing flat patch of discoloured skin. At first, it can resemble a mole or freckle but becomes more distinctive in time, often growing over months to years or even decades before it’s recognised as a melanoma. Like other flat forms of melanoma, it can be recognised by the ABCDE rule.

The signs of superficial spreading melanoma include:

  • larger than most moles; usually bigger than 6mm and often one to two centimetres in diameter
  • usually an irregular shape
  • variable in pigmentation; colours may include light brown, dark brown, black, blue, grey, pink and red
  • may include areas that are skin-coloured, or white scars
  • smooth surface at first, later becoming thicker with an irregular surface that may be dry or warty

Is your skin already sun damaged? How can you reduce your chances of developing melanoma?

If the above sounds like you, or someone you know, we recommend doing a thorough self-check of your skin every three months at least, and booking a professional skin cancer check such as a Full Body MoleMap every year to detect the early signs of melanoma and track any changes in your skin.

Even though the damage may already have been done long ago, it’s never too late to reduce your sun exposure by following these simple sun protection tips. Always apply a broad spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen and cover up with a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses and high UPF clothing when working or playing in the sun, especially between 10am and 4pm during the daylight saving months.

Sources: dermnetnz.org, molemap.co.nz

For authoritative information about skin, visit DermNet NZ.

References:

1. Feller, L., Khammissa, R. A. G., Kramer, B., Altini, M., & Lemmer, J. (2016). Basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma of the head and face. Head & face medicine, 12(1), 11. https://head-face-med.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13005-016-0106-0

2. Richardson, A., Fletcher, L., Sneyd, M. J., Cox, B., & Reeder, A. I. (2008). The incidence and thickness of cutaneous malignant melanoma in New Zealand 1994-2004. The New Zealand Medical Journal (Online), 121(1279). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18709044

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