By Jo-Marie Brown
One in 10 Tauranga people will develop melanoma or a pre-cancerous form of it, according to research that shows the Bay has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
The findings have worried Tauranga dermatologist Paul Salmon, who conducted the study after noticing an alarming rise in the number of people seeking treatment at his Cameron Rd clinic for melanoma.
Dr Salmon is urging Bay people to take special care in the sun this summer, a warning supported by the Cancer Society.
After reviewing the records of 1000 patients treated for melanoma in clinics throughout the Western Bay, Dr Salmon concluded that 89 local residents per 100,000 people were developing the dangerous form of skin cancer every year.
When the number of "in situ", or pre-cancerous, melanomas was taken into account, that rate nearly doubled to 176 per 100,000.
The rates were well above the national average of 40 per 100,000 people, and even exceeds rates in Queensland and Hawaii, which both treat about 60 people per 100,000 every year for invasive melanoma.
"People who like the sun come and live in Tauranga and they've already been badly damaged by the sun in the past because they like to expose themselves to it," Dr Salmon said.
"That's why they come to Tauranga in the first place and that's particularly true of our retired population. Consequently, because there's also lots of sun here, they end up having melanomas."
He said the 11-point UV index often reached "extreme" in Tauranga and people failed to understand that these levels were not related to temperature.
"The UV rate never gets above 11 anywhere else in the world apart from some bits of Australia and the bottom of Argentina. People just don't appreciate how bad it is because it's not as hot here as it is in Australia. Because we have the ocean close by, it's cooler so people think it's nice to be in the sun.
``But what people don't realise is that living in New Zealand is a bit like living at altitude elsewhere. It's not very hot but the UV is very intense."
Melanoma affected pigment cells and was one of about a dozen different types of skin cancer. It was the third most common form - and one of the more dangerous because it was capable of spreading to other parts of the body.
Dr Salmon said melanoma, if caught early, was almost always successfully treated. "It's not generally fatal but it's still the highest cause of cancer deaths among young people," he said. "People need to keep a close eye on their skin and if they develop a new mole or see a mole that's changing they need to go and see their doctor."
In addition to the Western Bay's extreme melanoma rate, Dr Salmon said half of all the people living in Tauranga would develop some sort of skin cancer during their lifetimes.
While people were more sun-smart these days, Bay residents still underestimated the danger of sun exposure. "The mistake people make is that they think they can still take off all their clothes as long as they've got sunscreen on.
"Sunscreen unfortunately doesn't protect you from all the damage from the sun. It should be used on areas of the body that you can't reasonably cover with clothing such as your face or hands."
Skin cancer rates were falling in other parts of the world but New Zealand's was still rising.
Dr Salmon, who plans to repeat his study in about five or six years, urged Bay people to check the UV index published in newspapers every day and cover up appropriately.
In the Bay of Plenty Times, the UV index is published in the Bay Weather box at the back of the first section of the newspaper.
For much of this week, the index has hovered around the extreme 11 mark. Cancer Society Tauranga health promoter Maree Achilles said she was amazed but not surprised by the study's results.
"People move to this area for the sun-loving aspect without too much regard to sun exposure," she said.
Most UV damage to the skin occurred during childhood, and most Bay schools now had strict sun-smart policies. Children were required to wear hats at certain times of the day, playgrounds were covered in shade-cloth and outdoor activities were held early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the sun's most intense rays.
Maree Achilles said the Cancer Society would provide sunscreen and beach umbrellas along Mt Maunganui's main beach in January for a gold coin donation. It would be the third time the summer promotion was held.
"People are definitely picking up the message - and we're finding too that the children are educating their parents as well."
While the study's findings were scary, they underlined the need for continuing awareness, she said.