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Many melanomas found by screening may not be harmful

Findings from a new Australian study suggest that as many as one-third of melanomas detected during routine skin checks may not be harmful.

The authors of the paper, published online ahead of print in the British Journal of Dermatology, said their study shows there needs to be more research on why some melanomas remain dormant and undetected for a long time.

In a press release, study lead Professor David Whiteman MD, PhD, said researchers followed a large cohort of residents of Queensland, Australia over seven years. These were the more than 40,000 participants from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute’s QSkin study. The researchers found melanoma detections were significantly higher among the group who had their skin examined by a physician before enrolment in the study.

“The results suggest that up to 29 per cent of the melanomas detected during skin checks may never have come to light if that person wasn’t screened,” said Dr. Whiteman, who is the Senior Scientist, Cancer Control Group, at the QIMR Berghofer in Queensland.

“It suggests that skin examinations and biopsies are picking up things that look and feel just like melanomas, but they don’t always behave like them or cause harm,” he said.

“Melanoma can be a very dangerous cancer and our study does not lessen the importance of good prevention, screening and treatment at all. But it does open up some exciting research possibilities to improve diagnosis and treatment of the disease.”

The release notes that the findings may lead to more accurate diagnostic tools, potentially sparing some patients from the anxiety associated with a melanoma diagnosis.

Dr. Whiteman said that if researchers could address the issue by delivering improved diagnostic tools, it would benefit patients, physicians and the health system.

“Patients diagnosed with melanoma have to live with the fact they have a potentially fatal cancer and endure ongoing check-ups and scans. It’s a life-changing event,” Dr. Whiteman said.

“Fortunately, most people diagnosed with melanoma in Australia can expect an excellent prognosis, as doctors in this country are world leaders in the detection and treatment of this disease.”

“If we can find a way to distinguish the melanomas with a good prognosis from the very nasty melanomas, we might be able to offer patients better information about their condition and more appropriate treatment options.

“It would also help alleviate pressure on the healthcare system as melanoma treatment is very, very costly,” he said.


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