Dr Richard Martin says New Zealanders have the highest rate of all skin cancers – especially melanoma. “In New Zealand there are about 4500 new melanomas a year,” Dr Martin says. “This is basically split 50-50 between the earliest form of melanoma that is completely curable, and invasive melanoma.”
As a Surgical Oncologist, Dr Martin assesses and treats all forms of melanoma. He’s also a board member of Melanoma NZ and other professional bodies which aim to improve treatment of the disease in New Zealand through world-class clinical care and research.
While Australia’s melanoma rates are starting to fall, possibly because of much stronger ‘Slip Slop Slap’ campaigns, New Zealand statistics are rising. Dr Martin cites two reasons for this increase; “New Zealand has high UV levels, which is unfortunate for people with fair skin. Skin cancer in Pacific, Maori and Asian people, is very, very low,” he says.
“The second thing is we’re becoming much more aware of skin cancer. Many more people are going to GPs and specialists to have their skin checked.” This is a vital step for early detection and effective treatment, he adds. ““A skin check for New Zealanders should be part of the annual physical exam.”
Dr Martin praises schools for enforcing skin protection. “They’re very sun-aware,” he says. “When you leave school you may forget some of those messages.” He stresses the key to preventing skin cancers is not getting sunburnt. “New Zealanders love their outdoor lifestyle, so the key thing is not getting burnt. [That means] wearing sunscreen, covering up, avoiding the midday sun and wearing sunglasses.”
Dr Martin says there’s been a revolution in melanoma management over the past five years. BRAF therapy targets a mutation in certain melanomas while anti-PD1 inhibitors harness the body’s immune system to attack melanoma sites. After a campaign from Melanoma NZ, Pharmac began funding anti-PD1 inhibitors – but not CTLA-4 inhibitors or BRAF drugs.
“The problem for Kiwis is, who’s going to pay for it?” Dr Martin asks. “Some people can afford it, or have insurance, and others can’t. For clinicians and patients, even though it’s wonderful news that we have these new drugs, not everyone is going to be able to access them.”
Melanoma affects all ages
As the CEO of New Zealand’s leading life and health insurer Sovereign, Nick Stanhope knows only too well the impact of melanoma. “The majority of our claims for melanoma are from customers aged between 40-60 years of age, but last year 22 people aged between 20-40 made claims.”
“Through our relationships with specialists like Dr Martin, we can provide customers with access to the best treatment options as quickly as possible. We also encourage regular skin checks with a diagnostic and testing benefit.”
Echoing Dr Martin’s advise, Stanhope adds: “I challenge every Kiwi adult to apply as much diligence to their personal sun protection as they would to their children. And regular skin checks should be a non-negotiable for us all.”