What is melanoma and what are the early signs of the skin cancer?

Sabrina Barr
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Scientists at Edith Cowan University in Australia have developed a potentially revolutionary blood test that’s been designed to help health professionals spot the early signs of melanoma.

Their research, which was published in bio-medical journal Oncotarget earlier this week, could prove invaluable for thousands of individuals diagnosed with skin cancer every year.

In 2015, there were 15,906 new cases of melanoma skin cancer in the UK, as outlined by Cancer Research UK.

So what exactly is melanoma and what are the early signs of the skin cancer?

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a form of skin cancer, which develops from cells called melanocytes.

Melanocytes are skin cells that produce melanin, the pigment that controls the colour of your skin.

Melanin protects your skin from UV radiation, which is why people with lighter skin who have less melanin are more susceptible to sunburn.

While melanoma is typically thought of as a cancer of the skin, it can also occur elsewhere on the body.

Cutaneous melanoma is the melanoma of the skin, as explained by the Melanoma Research Foundation.

Mucosal melanoma occurs on mucous membranes of the body such as the nasal passage or throat, while ocular melanoma is a rare form of the disease that occurs in the eye.

What are the causes?

The majority of cases of the skin cancer are caused from excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays.

Too much time spent in the sun without adequate protection can increase risk of melanoma.

Using indoor tanning beds has also been linked to the development of skin cancer, as they can emit stronger UV rays than the sun.

In February, a 20-year-old model from Manchester called Ella Ravenscroft wrote a powerful post on Facebook warning people about using sunbeds.

Ms Ravenscroft had to have several moles surgically removed from her body as a result, which left a number of scars.

“Girls/boys this is why it’s really important NOT to use the sunbeds, I had two tiny moles on my tummy that have grown due to using sunbeds!” she wrote.

“Just want to make people more aware how dangerous they are as you don’t think something as little as a mole could cause cancer.”

What are the signs?

One of the most widely known signs of melanoma is if you notice a new mole on your body or if you’ve spotted that an old mole has changed in colour, shape or size.

The NHS suggests speaking to a doctor as soon as possible if you become aware of any changes to moles on your body.

In addition to moles that have enlarged, changed shape or changed colour, you should also keep an eye out for moles that have become itchy or sore or moles that have begun bleeding.

Moles can appear anywhere on the body, although they’re more likely to appear on men’s backs and women’s legs, as stated by the American Cancer Society.

In January this year, Gillian Nuttall, CEO and founder of Melanoma UK, reached out to Piers Morgan after noticing an unusual mark on his chest while watching him on a TV show.

Morgan decided to visit a dermatologist following Ms Nuttall’s advice, who removed the blemish immediately and revealed that it could have become cancerous in the in the near future.

Morgan publicly thanked Ms Nuttall, describing her as his “saviour."

Is any sun exposure safe?

While the vitamin D emitted from the sun is extremely beneficial for your overall wellbeing, tanning is apparently always detrimental, according to Dr Ross Perry, GP and medical director of CosmedicsUK.

"There is no such thing as a healthy sun tan," Dr Perry told The Independent.

"A tan is a response to DNA damage, whether you get it on the beach, on a sunbed, or through incidental exposure.

"Tans are caused by harmful UV radiation from the sun, and if you have one, you've sustained skin cell damage."

Viewers of Love Island have been expressing increasing concern over contestant Alex George, whose skin has been appearing red in colour throughout the show.

“Alex’s sunburn is making me feel uncomfortable,” one person commented on Twitter, with another person saying: “Someone give the boy some aloe vera.”