Here in Australia, melanoma is the most common cancer among people between the age of 15 to 44 — and two in every three Australians will be diagnosed with a form of skin cancer by the time they’re 70.
Despite its frequency, there remain a number of widely-held misconceptions about how skin cancer occurs and who is susceptible. We figure that anyone with fairer skin, or who has numerous visible moles on their body, would automatically be more at risk than other kinds of complexions.
Harvard researchers examined 566 patients with melanoma — the most deadly form of skin cancer — to explore whether there was a relationship between the number of nevi, i.e. moles, on their body and the thickness of tumours.
Interestingly, they found the majority of these melanoma patients weren’t particularly “mole-y.”
Watch: Four reasons we’ve been obsessed with face mists this year. (Post continues after video.)
Of the participants, 66 per cent had between zero and 20 moles, around 20 per cent had 20-50 moles, and 13 per cent had more than 50 of them.
This difference was even more obvious among older patients — of those aged 60 or older, just 19 per cent had 20 or more moles.
Surprised? So were the researchers.
“We were very struck by this finding … Loads of people have been led to believe that melanoma is primarily a disease of very mole-y people or people with lots of unusual moles,” lead researcher Alan Charles Geller tells TIME.
“I think that’s the main finding here: that that does not appear to be the case.”
The study also showed that among patients younger than 60, thicker melanomas were more common in those who had fewer moles in total but a higher number of atypical nevi.
"[This suggests] physicians and patients should not rely on the total nevus count as a sole reason to perform skin examinations or to determine a patient’s at-risk status," the conclusion states.
This doesn't mean people who are covered in moles should be less more relaxed about their skin. Moles can serve as early markers of cancer risk and often enable faster diagnosis and subsequent treatment. This is why we're encouraged to monitor moles and other marks on the skin for visible changes.
“Spots on your skin can change in shape, colour or size, so if you see any change in even one of these three, visit your GP,” Craig Sinclair, chair of Cancer Council Australia’s Public Health Committee, told The Glow. (Post continues after gallery.)
If anything, these new findings are an indication that we should all be more vigilent about our check-ups and asking our doctors for an examination, regardless of skin type.
“Two things have to happen: people have to check their skin, and we need to feel more comfortable with the ‘squeaky wheel gets the oil’ concept,” Alan Charles Geller told TIME.
How often do you have your skin checked?