Most of the time, being number one is both good and beneficial. But not when it comes to skin cancers. New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of skin cancer compared to other countries. Both countries are tied at number one. The reasons for this include their geographic locations, the fact that the majority of people have fair skin, and our unrelenting desire to feel the sun on our skin. Generally speaking, there are two types of skin cancer, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. Here are some skin cancer numbers we should be concerned about:
For New Zealand
Cases of skin cancer (melanoma and non-melanoma) in New Zealand total approximately 67,000 per year. It’s surprising when compared to ALL other cancers which only sum up to 16,000 cases per year.
For non-melanoma type skin cancers, researchers have found that two out of three New Zealanders will develop them during their lifetime.
Every year, melanoma claims the lives of more than 300 New Zealanders. It’s common among the age range of 25-44 years old. It’s the fourth most common cancer in New Zealand. On a daily basis, about 11 New Zealanders are diagnosed with it.
For our friendly neighbour (Australia)
More than 750,000 Australians are treated for non-melanoma type skin cancer yearly.
For melanoma type skin cancers, it was recorded that more than 12,000 cases were diagnosed in 2013. It’s estimated to reach more than 13,000 by the end of 2017. It claimed the lives of more than 1,400 Australians back in 2014.
The incidence of melanoma in Australia and New Zealand is approximately four times higher than the US, UK, and Canada. Melanoma is of particular concern because it is deadly and develops from moles. So, it’s of paramount importance that we start paying attention to melanoma and where it develops from…moles. What are moles anyway?
What Moles Are and Why We Have Them
A mole is a gathering of pigment-producing (or colour producing) skin cells called melanocytes on the superficial layers of your skin. The pigment produced is called melanin. We have them because they’re a normal part of the development of our skin and in response to sun exposure. Our genetics also contributes to the formation of moles. In essence, melanocytes protect our skin from the UV rays of the sun by producing melanin. Sometimes, after mass melanin production, the melanocytes fail to disperse (from the gathering) and remain as moles.
Some moles may already have been present when you were born. New moles can continue to appear even in your 40s. They can appear flesh coloured, blue, brown or black. Most moles are flat; but some are raised.
Under normal circumstances, your moles can change in appearance as a response to sun exposure (they appear darker). Hormone replacement therapy, pregnancy, and puberty also affect the colour of moles.
Moles are different from freckles. Freckles are flat, small brown marks found on the sun-exposed areas of people with light skin, usually redheads (natural coloured red heads, ahem). There are some exceptions of course. The pigment (colour) is found in skin cells called keratinocytes which shed themselves by the end of summer making freckles less visible during winter. In contrast, the melanin pigment in moles is found in skin cells called melanocytes.
Unfortunately, some moles turn to the dark side and become bad. They behave malignantly and can lead to the development of melanoma, a badass type of skin cancer that can be deadly if not diagnosed early. A melanoma develops from a pre-existing mole. An effective way to identify and monitor the growth of your moles is through mole mapping.
What is Mole Mapping?
Mole mapping is a kind of surveillance program done to identify people who are at high risk for melanoma and its subtypes. It includes a physical examination and the use of a dermatoscope on your skin done by a doctor or, more often than not, a dermatologist. It can involve marking spots on an illustration of the human body (representing your body) to show the location of problematic-looking moles. But more commonly these days, photographic prints or digital images are taken. They are saved as a record that the doctor can use for comparison at a later date. This way, the troublesome moles can be monitored, and if new moles have appeared, they can be identified and recorded as well.
A dermatoscope is an instrument used in mole examination for better visualisation. Some camera and video attachments are available to capture still photographs and short video clips of your moles.
There are also some sophisticated machines that automatically map out your moles. But your doctor shouldn’t skip the actual physical examination of the mole.
Reminder: You will be asked to strip down to your underwear to do a thorough physical examination. Sometimes it may get uncomfortable because you might end up in your birthday suit if the troublesome moles are located within the territory of your underwear. Relax, it’s nothing personal, just minding your moles.
Should everyone try mole mapping?
No. Not everyone needs to undergo mole mapping. If you have the following characteristics mole mapping is recommended as a precaution:
A strong family history of melanoma.
If you had melanoma in the past.
A normal mole population is between 1 to 50 moles. If you have more than 50 moles on your body, it’s best you have them mapped out and monitored. This is particularly true for moles located on your back.
If you frequently have sunburns on the areas of your body that have lots of moles.
If you have moles with the following characteristics: Remember the ABCDE Rule.
A – Asymmetry
Draw an imaginary vertical line through the middle of your mole dividing it into two. Are the two halves symmetrical to each other? Asymmetrical moles should be examined by your doctor.
B – Border
Normal moles don’t have blurry, uneven, and jagged borders (irregular). Irregular borders should be monitored.
C – Colour Variation
A healthy mole has one evenly distributed colour. Multiple colours and shades present in your mole should prompt you to see a doctor.
D – Diameter
Any mole having the greatest diameter of more than 6mm should be checked out by your doctor.
E – Evolving
A combination of the abnormal characteristics above would qualify your mole as evolving. Also, the presence of tenderness, bleeding, and itching are additional signs that should warrant an investigation.
Note: Even without mole mapping you can use the table above to examine your moles. Also, mole examination is best done by using a magnifying glass. Ask a friend or relative to help you examine the moles on your back. The presence of hair or hairs on a mole isn’t a clue for cancer, as long as the other characteristics of abnormalities in the table above aren’t met.
The Bottom Line
It’s obvious that we can’t do anything about the geographic location of New Zealand and Australia on the globe (Can you move an island?) to prevent the development of melanoma, but we can do something about the appearance of new moles and already existing ones. Mole mapping can definitely assist you if you have any of the risk factors mentioned above. Also, remember the ABCDE rule of mole analysis. It will help identify pre-malignant moles and melanoma. Consult your doctor as soon as you notice any abnormalities. Lastly, prevention is the most important so avoid excessive sun exposure at peak times and especially avoid sunburn.