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Factors associated with the detection of cutaneous melanomas and reasons for delay in diagnosis were investigated in 429 patients with histologically proven melanoma operated on between January 1993 and June 1996. Patients were interviewed using a standardized questionnaire. In 25% of patients, treatment was delayed for more than 1 year from the time they first noticed a suspicious pigmented lesion. Melanoma was detected by the patients themselves in 67% of women and 45% of men. The three predominant clinical symptoms of melanoma were change in colour (darker), increase in size and increase in elevation of a pigmented lesion. The role of sun exposure and of naevi as risk factors for melanoma, as well as the potential benefit of early treatment, were known by 87%, 66% and 82% of the patients, respectively. However, melanoma awareness had no impact on the time period between first observation of skin changes and treatment. Among the factors associated with delay in melanoma diagnosis, an initial incorrect diagnosis as a benign lesion by the physician first visited (in 18% of all cases) had the highest significance. Patients detecting their lesions themselves were treated significantly later than patients in whom others had remarked on changes in a naevus. Furthermore, melanomas of the head and neck were treated later than melanomas at other body sites. Further efforts to educate both the public and the medical profession are essential to ensure earlier treatment for cutaneous melanomas.