11/09/2017 4:10 PM AEST | Updated 11/09/2017 4:10 PM AEST

Australian Researchers Believe They Can Stop Melanoma In Its Tracks

Not only is it the deadliest, but it's also the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in Australia.

Australian researchers assisting in the fight against melanoma have conducted groundbreaking clinical trials that appear to stop the disease's deadly progression.

The spread of the disease was prevented in Stage III patients who previously had a 40-70 percent chance of developing advanced and fatal melanoma.

The malignant cancer is the deadliest and fourth most commonly diagnosed skin cancer in Australia.

The study's author and conjoint medical director of the Melanoma Institute Australia, Professor Georgina Long, said that the findings meant that patients no longer had to wait with bated breath to see if their melanoma would metastasise or spread.

"Living with such fear severely affected them and their loved ones," she said.

"Results from these clinical trials suggest we can stop the disease in its tracks -- effectively preventing it from spreading and saving lives. Our ultimate goal of making melanoma a chronic rather than a terminal illness is now so much closer to being achieved."

In a world first, the two trials saw patients administered treatments at an earlier stage of the disease to prevent its spread and recurrence.

Getty Images/iStockphoto
If you notice a new mole, or changes to an existing one, you should get it checked by a doctor immediately.

In the COMBI-AD trial, patients with the BRAF gene -- a gene affecting cell growth --- received targeted therapies using dabrafenib and trametinib, which not only prevented the recurrence of Stage III melanoma, but increased overall survival.

Patients with high risk Stage III and Stage IV who had had all melanoma surgically removed were involved in a separate trial, CheckMate 238. These patients had their immune systems rebooted through immunotherapy nivolumab or ipilimumab for 12 months.

Results from CheckMate 238 showed that nivolumab decreased the chance of relapse.

"These clinical trials show we now have ammunition to prevent melanoma spreading or progressing, which until now was a critical area of disease behaviour where we had no control," Long said.

"This will now change how melanoma is treated around the world, as we no longer have to passively wait to see if the melanoma spreads.

"We can now actively and effectively attack the melanoma at an earlier stage, reducing the dreadful anxiety for patients about progressing to a potentially terminal illness and ensuring they have much better outcomes."

Andrew Watson
95 percent of melanomas are caused by UV exposure -- sunscreen is a non-negotiable.

What is melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can occur on parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun, however it is also known to occur on parts of the skin that have not been exposed.

The disease is more commonly diagnosed in men than women and accounts for nearly one in ten cancer diagnoses.

What are the causes of melanoma?

According to the Cancer Council, the risk of developing melanoma increases with exposure to UV radiation and for people who have:

  • Unprotected sun exposure;
  • Increased numbers of unusual moles;
  • Depressed immune systems;
  • A family history of melanoma in a first degree relative (i.e. parent, sibling or child);
  • Fair skin, a tendency to burn rather than tan, freckles, light eye colour, light or red hair colour;
  • Had a previous melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer
kokkai via Getty Images
Aussies love their fun in the sun but must remember to apply (and reapply) sunscreen.

How do I know if I have a melanoma?

While melanoma can often have no symptoms, the presence of the disease can be signalled by the appearance of a new spot or a change in an existing mole.

Adults in particular are advised to have any new spots or moles examined by their doctor. According to the Cancer Council such changes can include:

  • Colour -- a mole may change in colour or have different colour shades or become blotchy;
  • Size -- a mole may appear to get bigger;
  • Shape -- a mole may have an irregular border or may increase in height;
  • Elevation -- the mole may develop a raised area;
  • Itching or bleeding
RapidEye via Getty Images
The risk of developing melanoma increases with exposure to UV radiation -- it's important to remember to slip, slop, slap.

How can I prevent melanoma?

Overexposure to UV light is believed to be the cause of 95 percent of melanomas, therefore the best way to prevent it is to ensure your skin is well protected from the sun.

The Melanoma Institute recommends using the sunscreen with the highest possible SPF that is also broad-spectrum -- meaning it will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays.

According to the World Health Organisation, UVA accounts for 95 percent of the UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface and can penetrate deep into the skin's layers, while UVB rays can't penetrate beyond the skin's superficial layers they significantly promote the development of skin cancer.

In Australia, sunscreen is an important defence but we often don't apply enough -- most Aussies use around half the amount we're meant to.

The best tip is to imagine a golf ball in your hand, then fill it up with that amount of sunscreen -- and remember to reapply.