One of the world’s largest skin cancer studies has been used to develop a newly launched online questionnaire to predict melanoma risk.

The Australian-developed free online tool was built using data from 42,000 Queenslanders but developer Professor David Whiteman said the research team expected it to be just as useful for New Zealanders.

Whiteman, Dr Catherine Olsen and the team at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane found in 2016 that New Zealand had overtaken Australia to record the highest per capita rates of melanoma in the world. The study predicted that New Zealand’s melanoma rate peaked at about 51 cases per 100,000 people in 2016 and would start to gradually fall from 2017.

The online tool calculates the probability of the user developing a melanoma in the next 3.5 years by analysing the user’s answers to questions about the seven risk factors for melanoma.  These are age, sex, ability to tan, number of moles at age 21, number of skin lesions treated, hair colour and sunscreen use.

The Melanoma Risk Predictor tool makes clear that it was not intended to be a substitute for a doctor’s advice and did not estimate the risk of other skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

But Whiteman said it could help identify those people with the highest likelihood of developing melanoma so that they and their doctors could decide how to best manage their risk.

“Regular screening of those at highest risk may help to detect melanomas early, and hopefully before they’ve spread to the lower layers of the skin and other parts of the body.

“Importantly, in this study, we found that people’s actual risk of melanoma was quite different to their own assessment. This highlights the importance of getting personalised advice on your melanoma risk, because it could well be different to your perceived risk.”

He said the team now planned to trial the online melanoma risk predictor among skin cancer doctors and their patients to test how it performed in the clinic.

Pilot finds melanoma

Back across the Tasman a six-week pilot of offering on-site skin cancer checks in three Hamilton general practice has recently been completed with 11 out of the 59 patients screened being diagnosed with skin cancers.

One of those patients was Hamilton retiree Hazel Bell who was contacted two days after her MoleMap skin check to be told the spot on her back was a 2cm wide melanoma.  She was referred to Waikato Hospital and had the melanoma removed three weeks later and was told the timely screening meant the melanoma was caught in time before it spread to her lymph nodes.

The pilot involved having a melanographer nurse on-site at each of the practices two days a week offering 30 minute full body check appointments with any concerning lesions found being sent on to MoleMap dermatologists for diagnosis.  Eleven patients were diagnosed with basal or squamous cell skin cancers or melanoma and referred to the relevant services including, when appropriate, seeing their normal GP to have a skin lesion removed.

MoleMap is now trialling the in-practice screening partnership with two further medical centres, one in Pukekohe and another in Auckland.

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