Skin Cancer Risk in the BOP

New Zealand has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer worldwide, and the Cancer Society states that over 90% of skin cancer cases are sun related.

Here at Grace Hospital, in the sunny Bay of Plenty, we treat many patients each year for skin lesions that are cancerous. With one of the highest incidences of skin cancer worldwide, New Zealanders need to take notice of the warnings about skin cancer prevention.

There are three main types of skin cancer:

Melanoma - the most serious form of skin cancer, causing over two thirds of total skin cancer deaths.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) - easily treated if found early but can be fatal if left untreated.
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) - the most common and least dangerous skin cancer. BCC can be serious, requiring surgery if left untreated
Much research has been carried out looking into the causes and treatment of these lesions, but it’s fair to say that prevention where possible saves a lot of regret. Unfortunately New Zealanders have a very high risk of developing skin cancer due to the following factors:
  • high levels of UV radiation in New Zealand during daylight savings months;
  • low ozone levels over New Zealand;
  • our outdoor lifestyle and tendency to ‘seek the sun'; and,
  • a high proportion of people with fair skin.
The Cancer Society in New Zealand have promoted their Slip, Slop, Slap campaign for many years, and the manufacturers of sun screen products have increased the SPF rating on most products giving more protection, but the message seems to be only getting through to some New Zealanders, with many still not using any protection when outdoors.

It appears that genetics plays a part in whether someone will develop a cancerous skin lesion, however Professor David Whiteman, who is Head of the Cancer Control Laboratory, Coordinator of the Population Health Department and Coordinator of the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Research Centre at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane says even allowing for genetic factors, everyone with fair skin living in New Zealand is at high risk for melanoma – at least four times that of people who live in the UK or Europe to where most trace their ancestry.

“There’s very strong evolutionary selection in favour of darker skin in a sunny climate. Māori and Pacific people who have darker skin have a much lower genetic risk of developing melanoma because the melanin pigment in their skin is a very effective shield for UV radiation.” He says there’s also a lot of evidence that melanomas are the most “deranged” of tumours in terms of the number of mutations they have and that those mutations are characteristically UV-induced.  “Fair skinned people who live in New Zealand who don’t develop melanoma are very fortunate because they clearly have some kind of ability to repair the sun’s damage.

“The bottom line is that the sun is potentially lethal for certain melanomas and everybody – particularly those with fair skin – needs to protect themselves from the sun.” The risk of developing melanoma is strongly related to a history of one or more sunburns in childhood or adolescence.

“We therefore have a responsibility as a society to minimise sun exposure for those who can’t protect themselves. For example, we need to make sure school children aren’t playing cricket or having swimming sports in the middle of a hot summer’s day.”

If you wish to know more about skin cancer prevention, please check the link to the cancer Society’s website.

Thanks to the Cancer Society for the information contained in this article.