Researchers develop online test that predicts skin cancer risk

Published: 12 March 2018 Image credit: QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute


Queensland researchers have developed a 90 second online test for people aged 40 and over that predicts their risk of developing melanoma over the next three and a half years.

The test was developed from the world’s largest study of skin cancer of people aged between 40 to 70 by QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.

Test results are based on seven risk factors which include sex, age, ability to tan, number of moles at age 21, number of skin lesions treated, hair colour and sunscreen use.

The research team studied 42,000 people over an eight-year period who did not have melanoma at the start of the survey period.

The test is now available online.

Professor David Whiteman said currently individuals have to talk to their doctors about whether they need skin checks, as there are no population-wide screening programs for melanoma.

“This online risk predictor will help identify those people with the highest likelihood of developing melanoma so that they and their doctors can decide how to best manage their risk,” Professor Whiteman said.

“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.”

Melanoma is the fourth most common cancer in Australia, costing the healthcare system $201 million in 2017.

Professor Whiteman and the team from QIMR Berghofer now plan to trial the online test among skin cancer doctors and their patients.

“We hope that by identifying those who might benefit from regular skin checks, the online melanoma risk predictor will help to ease pressure on the healthcare system,” Professor Whiteman said.

Although there have been melanoma risk predictors developed in the past, they were based on research with different study designs and were less accurate.

“We have tested our online risk predictor thoroughly and found that it is accurate at predicting a person’s risk of developing melanoma,” Professor Whiteman said.

“Nonetheless, people should be aware that the tool provides only an estimate of future risk and it is not a substitute for getting their skin checked by a doctor.

“We encourage people to use it as a general guide, and if it says you have a high risk of melanoma, we strongly encourage you to visit your doctor and discuss whether a skin check would benefit you.”

Professor Whiteman said even if the test says you are at low risk it is important to still be sun safe.

“ Most Australians are at a higher risk of melanoma than people in other countries due to the combined effects of fair skin and very high levels of sunlight,” he said.

“If you’re spending time outdoors this weekend, don’t become a statistic: remember to slip, slop, slap, seek and slide.”

Lieutenant Colonel Meegan Olding recently had a melanoma removed from her cheek in February after a skin check.

The mother of three, based at the RAAF base at Amberley, west of Brisbane said she was always encouraged to take sun safety seriously, however admitted her own sun protection was sometimes an afterthought.

“When you are a busy mum of three you tend to slather the children in sunscreen – pull on their rashies and hats but you don’t always look after your own sun care as well,” Lt Colonel Olding said.

It wasn’t until Lt Colonel Olding’s husband first noticed a mole on her cheek had changed shape that she booked a skin check in through her workplace, but wasn’t overly concerned.

“To tell you the truth, I was quite complacent,” she said.

“I hadn’t noticed the change to the mole on my cheek and I just didn’t think it would be anything to worry about. It didn’t even cross my mind.”

Two days later the clinic informed her she had melanoma.

Lt Colonel Meegan Olding after a melanoma was removed from her cheek. Image credit: QIMR Berghofer

“I didn’t know what to think. No one in my family had melanoma; I didn’t have any close friends with melanoma. To tell the truth I was oblivious to melanoma. I was in shock.”

She was quickly booked into day surgery to have a large piece of her cheek removed, from just below the eye to the corner of her mouth.

Lt Colonel Olding said she was supportive of a tool that could help people assess their own risk of melanoma, as well as educate them about what to look for.

“I think that if I knew I was at a higher risk of melanoma, I would have noticed the changes to the spot on my cheek earlier.”

“I consider myself lucky. I got the results only recently and the margins were clear.

“Now that I know what to look for, when I look back at old photos I can see the spot on my cheek underwent some changes over time.

“I think awareness is the key. A risk prediction tool could be really useful for helping to make people aware not only of their individual risk, but also give advice on how to manage their risk.”

Cancer Australia predicts that 1905 people will die from melanoma and 14,320 new cases will be diagnosed nationally this year alone.