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International and Australian researchers have analysed the future and current impacts of the deadly skin cancer around the world, revealing there were 325,000 new melanoma cases and 57,000 deaths globally in 2020.
Melanomas killed 1725 Australians in 2020 and a further 15,229 new cases were diagnosed, data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer showed.
Australia has the second highest mortality rate behind New Zealand, with melanomas accounting for 4.5 deaths per 100,000 here and 5 per 100,000 across the ditch.
David Whiteman, a cancer epidemiologist at Brisbane’s QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, is one of the study’s co-authors.
Australia’s melanoma mortality rate had dropped sharply over recent years thanks to the introduction of immunotherapy drugs which became available around 2014, Professor Whiteman said.
“In Australia, the melanoma mortality over the last six or seven years has actually been declining pretty pretty quickly, because of the new immunotherapy drugs that have come on board,” Professor Whiteman said.
“So they’re having quite a dramatic effect, whereas New Zealand has fewer drugs available and has been slower to license them so that’s why our death rate is coming down more quickly.”
Rates rising for Aussies over 60
Overall melanoma rates appear to be plateauing in Australia, Dr Whiteman said, with cases falling amongst the younger generations due to more awareness of the dangers of sun exposure, but still increasing in people aged 60 and over.
“Rates continue to rise in older people in Australia, particularly those in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
“That’s in part due to the fact that those people having a lot of sun exposure as kids back in the 1950s – before ‘slip, slop, slap.’
“So they’re kind of reaping the harvest of earlier sun damage.”
Australia’s growing and ageing population means the number of melanoma cases are still increasing, at least for now.
“We can hope that Australia might have peaked, that we can now start to reduce the rate of melanoma,” Professor Whiteman said.
“We can turn the ship around, but it’s a big ship and it’s going to take a lot of turning.
“We can’t expect it to happen quickly, but we can expect it to happen.”
Meanwhile, in many other parts of the world – including Northern Europe, the US, Canada and the UK – melanoma rates are rising sharply, Professor Whiteman said.
‘It was a tiny, inconspicuous thing’
Gold Coast psychologist Danielle Rancie, 30, is one Australian who has become passionate about spreading awareness of the dangers of sun damage, after she was diagnosed with a melanoma herself in 2019.
For Ms Rancie, her stage two melanoma came as a terrifying shock.
Ms Rancie, who was living in Townsville at the time, had gone to get a skin check after noticing a mole on her back had grown to the size of a 5 cent piece.
However, that particular mole, while precancerous, would turn out to be the least of her worries.
While getting the skin check, the doctor noticed something Ms Rancie had not.
“They found this little pinprick of a dot that was inside of another freckle on my left arm,” she said.
“It was a tiny, inconspicuous thing. I wouldn’t have even known it was there if the doctor hadn’t looked at it with a microscope.
“That ended up being a stage two melanoma. It was a huge shock.
“I honestly thought I was fine.
“I was that typical person that thought, ‘No I’m going to delay, I don’t need a skin check. It won’t happen to me.'”
Ms Rancie needed surgery to remove the melanoma and surrounding tissue.
Luckily, the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes.
These days she gets full mole mapping done at regular skin checks, which have since picked up several suspicious spots.
Ms Rancie said the message was simple.
“Just go get checked, don’t delay, don’t think that you are that exception to the rule in that it can’t happen to you,” she said.
“Chuck on a hat, wear sunscreen and just don’t worry about what people think, especially young girls in particular because there is that huge stigma around tanned being more desirable than white porcelain skin.”
Contact reporter Emily McPherson at [email protected]