Did you know?

> New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of melanoma in the world
> Approximately 50% of all Kiwis will get a skin cancer in their lifetime
> 80 % of all new cancers diagnosed in New Zealand are skin cancers
> Melanoma is the leading cancer for males aged 25 to 44 years old and the second most common for females of the same age.
> Melanoma is the fourth most common life-threatening cancer in New Zealand for all ages combined
> Melanoma is the most serious of all skin cancers. However, it is by no means the most prevalent and only forms less that 5% of all skin cancers.
> From the age of 50, the rate of all skin cancers increase significantly with each decade

What is skin cancer?

Cancer is a disease of the cells in the body. The body is made up from millions of tiny cells. There are many different types of cell in the body and there are many different types of cancer which arise from different types of cell. What all types of cancer have in common is that the cancer cells are abnormal and multiply out of control

There are 3 main type of skin cancers

If diagnosed and treated early about 95% of melanoma and 99% of Non-melanoma skin cancers  (SCC/BCC) can be cured.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

A BCC typically develops on a sun-exposed area of the skin such as the head and neck. However, they can develop on any area of skin. The first sign is often a small red, pink or pearly lump which appears on previously normal skin. The lump is often dome-shaped. However, BCCs can vary in shape and colour. They usually grow very slowly and  it can take many months for one to grow to a centimeter or more.

In time, the lump on the skin may crust over, ulcerate or bleed from time to time. A skin ulcer caused by a BCC is sometimes called a rodent ulcer which often looks like a small crater with a raised edge. BCCs very rarely spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. However, untreated they continue to grow locally and can cause damage to nearby structures. For example, a BCC on the face may erode and damage the nose or an ear.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

An SCC typically develops on the face – most commonly on or around the ears or lips. But, again, any area of skin can be affected. It typically starts as a small crusted or scaly area of skin with a red or pink base. It may grow into a lump which may look like a wart. An SCC may ulcerate or bleed from time to time. However, an early SCC can vary in shape, appearance and colour.

As an SCC grows larger and deeper, it damages nearby structures. For example, if left untreated, an SCC next to a nose or ear can grow into, erode and then completely destroy the nose or ear. An SCC may also spread to other areas of the body. However, this is uncommon in the early stages and most are treated before any spread occurs.

Bowen’s disease is a condition which is thought to be a very flat early pre-cancerous SCC. It looks like a red-brown, scaly patch which may resemble psoriasis or eczema. If untreated, it may become a true SCC.


Melanoma is the least common form of skin cancer but it is the most serious. It is the one most likely to spread to other parts of the body. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that something damages or alters certain genes in the cell. This makes the cell abnormal and multiply out of control. The main risk factor which damages skin and can lead to a melanoma i The main risk factor which damages skin and can lead to a melanoma is damage from sun. It is the ultraviolet (UV) radiation in the sunshine and in sunbeds which does the damage. About 6 in 10 cases of melanoma are thought to be caused by UV damage. UV light damages the DNA (genetic material) in your skin cells which can then lead to skin cancers developing. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and can begin in normal skin or a mole or other dark spot in the skin. Survival rates dependent on the thickness of melanoma; a thickness less than 0.75 mm thick can expect to have a 95% cure rate. The success rate decreases as the thickness increases.


Other risk factors for melanoma

> Fair skin and red or fair hair
> One or more severe sunburns
> Use of sunbeds
> Previous skin cancers including melanoma
> A family history of melanoma in a first degree relative: parent, brother, sister or child
> Large, irregularly shaped and unevenly colored moles called atypical or dysplastic naevi
> A large number of moles

What to look for?

The first sign of a melanoma is usually the appearance of a new spot or a change in an existing freckle or mole:
> The change may be in size, shape and/or colour
> The change is normally noticed over several weeks or months rather than days
> A normal freckle or mole usually has an even colour and a smooth edge
> A melanoma often has an irregular edge or surface. It may be spotted with brown, black, blue, red, white and/or light grey.
> A freckle or mole that itches or bleeds by itself is sometimes, but not always, a melanoma
> A freckle or mole that becomes larger or irregular in shape may be a melanoma. It is quite normal for new moles to appear and change during childhood and early adulthood.

Mole Surgery recommends the following websites for skin cancer related information:

The Melanoma Network of NZ

The Melanoma Foundation of NZ

Cancer Society NZ

Skin Cancer College Australasia