Skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in New Zealand. Along with Australia, we have the highest melanoma rates in the world. Around 500 New Zealanders die of skin cancer every year. 


Types of skin cancer

Skin cancer includes melanoma and keratinocytic cancers (KC) (or non-melanoma skin cancers), specifically basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.


The most serious form of skin cancer. In 2017, melanoma was the third most common cancer diagnosed in both females and males, totaling 2,553 diagnoses. Overall, 378 people died from melanoma in 2015.

Keratinocytic cancers (KC)

KC’s are by far the most common cancer, although cases of KCs are not routinely reported in the Cancer Registry. A recent study estimated that 90,000 people will be diagnosed with invasive or in-situ KC annually. In 2015, 157 people died from KCs. Types of KCs:

  • 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 if left untreated.


Causes of skin cancer

The cause of over 90% of skin cancer is too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Overexposure to UV radiation causes permanent skin damage.

People of all ages and skin colours can be diagnosed with skin cancer but those at a higher risk are people who have:

  • fair skin and red or fair hair
  • fair skin that burns easily no matter what hair colour
  • had one or more severe sunburns—especially in childhood and adolescence
  • used sunbeds, particularly at a young age
  • had previous skin cancers or sun damage
  • a family history of melanoma (parent, brother, sister or child)
  • large, irregularly shaped and unevenly coloured moles
  • a large number of moles 
  • those with immune-compromised medical conditions such as transplant recipients
  • those who are taking medicines that make them sensitive to the sun.

While melanoma is relatively rare in Māori, accounting for less than 1% of diagnoses, it tends to be significantly thicker, making them more difficult to treat with a poorer prognosis. Māori are also more likely to present with more advanced melanoma, which may reflect barriers to detection, such as lower awareness of melanoma due to low rates; melanoma being more difficult to detect in people with darker skin; and reduced access to health care or sun safe environments.


Prevention of skin cancer

Skin cancer is largely preventable. For more information on what the Cancer Society does to help prevent skin cancer click here, or to find out what you can do click here

Checking your skin

It is important to detect skin cancer, especially melanoma, as soon as possible. Early detection generally gives the best chance of successfully treating cancer. 

See our resources on early detections and checking your skin here.

Most of us have spots on our skin. That’s quite normal. It is important to get to know your skin so that you can notice any changes.

Speak to your health professional if you have a mole, freckle or spot that:

  • is new or changing
  • does not heal
  • that looks different from others around it
  • has changed in size, thickness, shape, colour or has started to bleed.


Treatment of skin cancer

Many skin cancers are treated at the doctor’s surgery and do not need specialist treatment. Other forms of skin cancer may require more specialised surgery. 

For more information on treatment of melanoma go here.


Useful Websites

For more information and research on skin cancer please see the following websites:

Skin cancer facts and figures
Cancer Society information on melanoma


Last Updated: Tuesday 2 June, 2020