When you land in New Zealand, the first difference you can feel, especially if you come during the summer, is how strong the sun is! You can feel a burning sensation on your unprotected skin after few minutes of sun exposure. The ultraviolet radiation (UV) levels are very high due to clear skies and low pollution in New Zealand, and in combination with ozone depletion which makes the sun much stronger than in Europe. This contributes to the highest incidence of skin cancer world wide, premature skin aging, eye damage and damage to the immune system which is then more vulnerable to diseases.
New Zealand and Australia belong to the countries with the highest numbers of skin cancers – all deadly melanoma, basal cell carcinoma as well as squamous cell carcinoma. It is also due to the fact that many of the people living in Australasia came originaly from Europe and their skin is lighter than the skin of native people and therefore more sensitive to UV radiation. Secondly, in previous times it wasn´t known that sun can cause such harm and people were sunbathing on the beach using coconut and even olive oil. Sun protection lotion was unheard of.
Consequently, the vast majority of people above 40 years of age are sun-damaged and their skin damage is significantly more serious compared to European people. People look older than their age, have more wrinkles, more brown spots, more skin lesions as a consequence of the sun. Face, neck, hands and calves are the most affected sun-damaged sites.
I have observed in the skin lesion clinics, if not every, than every second patient, I have met, was diagnosed now or in previous visits with some type of skin cancer. The most common cancer is basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. It is common to find all three types of cancer on one patient´s skin. It is not rare to find several lesions of one type of cancer. Some patients show new skin cancers at each of their 6-monthly skin check ups. Also melanomas can be found in one patient several times during his life span. The patients most at risk are transplant patients on immunosuppressive drugs. One such patient told me the he had 62 skin cancers removed in one session and at that visit one could not decide which of new developer skin cancer one should treat first.
As mentioned previously, the face is the most affected site and as treatment is mostly surgical, some patient´s appearance can be drastically changed after several surgical excisions.
Sun protection is very important. Adverts on TV and on the radio urge people in summer (September – May) to use sun protection, long sleeves, sun glasses, sun hats. For example, children in primary schools are required to have a bottle of sunblock and a sun hat in their school bags. Without this, children will not be allowed to get out to the play-ground in their lunch breaks.
New Zealand environment and temperate climate encourages year round outdoor activities that participate increasing exposure risk. Even on cloudy days one can get sunburnt.
A regular skin check has become a must in order to have an early detection of skin cancers and this can avoid many melanoma deaths.