Skin Cancer is the most common form of cancer in New Zealand. You can reduce the risk of developing skin cancer by using SPF50+ sunscreen, seeking shade, wearing SunSmart clothing and having a regular skin cancer check by a doctor skilled in dermoscopy. Most skin cancers can be cured with early diagnosis and treatment. The sooner skin cancers are detected, the simpler the treatment.
Over 4,000 people are diagnosed with Melanoma in New Zealand every year - that's around 11 every day. Malignant melanoma (often shortened to just 'melanoma') is a potentially fatal skin cancer that can be cured in most cases if it is diagnosed and treated early. Therefore, regular checking of the skin surface is essential. Melanoma is the abnormal and uncontrolled growth of the skin's pigment cells (tanning cells). Melanoma can develop as a new mole or from an existing mole.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Over 100 people die of squamous cell carcinoma every year in New Zealand. Like Melanoma, if diagnosed and treated early, Squamous Cell Carcinoma can usually be cured. This skin cancer is usually found on sun-exposed parts of the skin surface. It is more common in people over 40. It looks like a crusty, non-healing sore and can be tender. Sometimes it just looks like a thickened area. Squamous Cell Carcinoma can often grow very rapidly.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
It is the most common skin cancer (about three quarters of all skin cancers). There are several different types of Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC). Some look like a small raised smooth lump, others like a non-healing sore, and yet others look like a pink, white or red patch, and can be quite difficult to see. BCC is the least dangerous type of skin cancer and is almost never a threat to life, but it still requires treatment. This is because they enlarge over time. However, with early detection comes a simpler surgery, where skin grafts are not needed. BCC can spread locally into muscles, bone and nerves, or rarely spreads to lymph nodes. Occasionally it may result in loss of eyes, ears or noses.
Apart from causing skin cancer, too much sun also damages the skin cells causing wrinkles, freckles, thinning of the skin and dilated blood vessels. Sun protection is crucial for everybody. So protect yourself - and your loved ones - from the sun by applying an SPF50+ sunscreen (click here to see how to apply sunscreen). However, sunscreens are not perfect. Sun protection should always start with avoiding peak sun hours and dressing sensibly. Try to keep in the shade where possible. Remember that when you are near sand, snow or water or at high altitude, your risk of skin cancer is higher due to extra ultraviolet radiation. If you are in the sun, remember to wear UV protective sunglasses.
For peace of mind a regular skin cancer check by a doctor skilled in dermoscopy is strongly recommended.
What about Vitamin D and the sun?
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones. You get vitamin D from sunlight and from your diet, or from supplements. By enjoying the sun sensibly, it is possible for everyone to make enough vitamin D while not increasing the risk of skin cancer.
For daylight-saving months in New Zealand, most people should be able to achieve satisfactory vitamin D levels through incidental outdoor UV exposure (such as a daily walk) before 10am and after 4pm. Everybody should try and avoid sun exposure at peak UV times, because of the skin cancer risk and the skin damaging effects. Between September and April, sun protection (shade, cover-up clothing and hats, sunscreen, sunglasses) is recommended, especially between 10 am and 5 pm approximately. Between May and August, sun protection is generally not required unless at high altitudes or near highly reflective surfaces, such as snow or water - during this time activity such as a day time walk is recommended for vitamin D synthesis.
The amount of time you need in the sun to make enough vitamin D varies from person to person. But the amount of sun needed to make enough vitamin D is always less than the high amounts that cause tanning or sunburn. Sunburn greatly increases the risk of skin cancer.