Skin cancer

Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer affecting New Zealanders and we have the highest incidence rates of melanoma skin cancer in the world. The good news is that most melanoma skin cancers are preventable by reducing excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation eg. sun or UV light

There are two main types of skin cancer:


Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. It can spread rapidly and can be life-threatening if left untreated. It is diagnosed most often in older adults.
Most melanomas are caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun. In people with fair skin, sun exposure, particularly sunburn in childhood and adolescence, leads to a greater risk of melanoma, compared with sun exposure in later life. Occasional, high doses of sun exposure (eg, during holiday and recreational activities) carry a greater risk of melanoma than with more continuous sun exposure (eg. people who work outdoors daily)

Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers (NMSC)

Non-melanoma skin cancers are far more common than melanoma. However, they tend to be less serious than melanoma (as long as they are treated).
The two main types are basal cell cancers (BCC) and squamous cell cancers (SCC).
BCC and SCC usually occur on areas of the skin that have been exposed to the sun. They tend to be related to a person's lifetime or 'cumulative' exposure to UV radiation.

How to check your skin

Make sure you check your entire body, including skin not normally exposed to the sun. You should use a hand-held mirror or ask for help from someone else to check difficult areas, such as your back and neck. It's important to check areas like your armpits, inner legs, ears, eyelids, hands and feet. Check your scalp by using a comb to move hair aside.

Melanoma: What to look for?

  • Look for any new spots or existing spots, freckles or moles that have changed in colour, shape or size. Often melanomas have an unusual shape or colour or a variety of colours. However, in some cases they may not be coloured.
  • Sometimes melanomas may be itchy or may bleed. Some may become raised quickly and catch on clothing.
  • Some types of melanoma develop over a period of weeks or months, while others tend to develop more slowly.
  • Nodular melanomas are a type that grow rapidly and need to be removed urgently. They are most often found on the head and neck and in older people, particularly men. They are raised, firm and often uniform in colour. Among those who develop melanoma, nodular melanomas occur more often in Māori and Pacific peoples compared with Asian peoples and New Zealand Europeans.

Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers: what to look for?

  • Squamous cell cancer (SCC) often appears as a raised, crusty, non-healing sore. It is often found on hands, forearms, ears, face or neck of people who have spent many years outdoors. SCC on the lips and ears has a high risk of spreading, so if you have a spot on your lips or ears, see your doctor immediately. SCC can be life threatening if untreated.
  • Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) appears as a pale, red or pearly, smooth lump, usually on the face or neck. BCCs are the most common and least serious forms of skin cancer (as long as they are treated).
  • There are other skin changes that are not cancer. Some of these are a sign of sun damage and show that you are more likely to develop skin cancer.

If you are concerned about any skin changes please see your doctor.

Skin cancer checks now with your smartphone

Suspicious spots or moles can now be checked using a downloaded app on your smartphone.
The digital health app Firstcheck allows people to submit photos of a mole to a skin professional for review with the specialist's opinion returned within 72 hours.

Websites of interest

Find your nearest Age Concern