2 Nov 2018

Slip, slop, slap: Research shows melanoma rates in NZ on decline

4:38 pm on 2 November 2018

New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of melanoma in the world, but new research suggests things are getting better thanks to the sun-smarts of younger generations.

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Photo: 123rf.com

The Melanoma Summit in Auckland today revealed that New Zealanders in their 20s and 30s have lower rates of melanoma than their parents' generation.

David Whiteman from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane said the soon-to-be-published research showed rates of melanoma in this country were declining by about one percent a year.

"It is a significant finding; it gives us hope that the health promotion programmes are working and that people are heeding the message to reduce their sun exposure, which is the main cause of melanoma."

Despite this positive finding, the number of fatalities from melanoma continues to rise as it affects older generations.

"New Zealand still has the highest mortality rate for melanoma in the world, so it is a serious problem," Mr Whiteman said.

John Kelly from the Victorian Melanoma Service in Melbourne had a stark warning about a less common but more dangerous form of melanoma - nodular melanomas.

These are often ignored because they resemble pimples, but are responsible for nearly half of fatalities despite accounting for just 15 percent of melanomas.

"Pimples will go away within a few weeks, but something that is still growing at a month and feels firm is important to draw to the attention of your doctor as soon as possible."

About 2500 people are diagnosed with melanoma each year in New Zealand.

'Barriers that need to be knocked down'

Leisa Renwick said that when her stomach swelled up to the point she looked pregnant, she thought she had pancreatic cancer.

And when a diagnosis of melanoma came back she was relieved - that was until she was told she only had a few weeks to live.

"At some point I was sent home in an ambulance on a Friday and my family was told I'd be dead by Friday."

Five years prior, she had a shallow melanoma cut from her back but was told it would be fine.

And she had never really been one for the sunshine - a leading cause of melanoma.

"I was a nerdy little bookworm kid who didn't play any sport and spent my time inside. I did not have an outdoorsy lifestyle, and I hid from the sun."

Despite the grim outlook, her husband fought to get her into a private cancer clinic and she was put onto a targeted gene therapy.

Three years later, she is cancer free as she addresses hundreds of the country's leading dermatologists and oncologists.

"It never occurred to me that suddenly my abdomen swelling might be melanoma."

The message she wanted to convey to the melanoma experts at the summit was that there were a lot of barriers facing melanoma patients - barriers that needed to be knocked down.

"I had an educated, strong person to stand up for me. But what about the people who don't have that? How many people get lost in the system that we never hear about?"

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