Who gets melanoma?

Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer; Copy Editor: Clare Morrison; Chief Editor: Dr Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, October 2013. About Melanoma is sponsored by the New Zealand Dermatological Society Incorporated.


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Melanoma can develop in anyone

  • Male and females
  • Old people and young people
  • People with light- or dark- coloured skin

About one in fifteen fair-skinned New Zealanders can expect to get a melanoma in their lifetime. New Zealand has the highest rates of melanoma in the world. In 2009 it was the fourth most common cancer registered and the sixth most common cause of death from cancer.

In New Zealand, older men of non-European ethnicity are more likely to be diagnosed with a difficult-to-treat thick melanoma. Men are twice as likely to die from melanoma than females of similar ethnic background.

Do Māori people get melanoma too?

Yes! Anyone can get melanoma, although it is much more common in white-skinned people than in brown- or black-skinned people.

Melanoma in Māori, Pacific and Asian people

Skin cancer, including melanoma, occurs much less commonly in Māori, Pacific and Asian people from New Zealand compared with New Zealand Europeans.

  • Ethnic groups with naturally darker skin produce more melanin. Melanin absorbs the ultraviolet radiation (UVR) that comes from the sun, preventing it from harming skin cells.
  • Cultural and behavioural differences relating to clothing and activities may also account for varied risks of melanoma in different populations.

Even though less than 1% of Māori are diagnosed with melanoma, they tend to have thicker melanomas, which are more dangerous and more difficult to treat. Three Māori men and three Māori women died of melanoma in 2010.

  • Melanoma in ethnic skin is often on the sole of the foot or under a nail.
  • Take a new or growing skin spot seriously – see your doctor straight away.
Melanoma in MāoriMelanoma in Pacific IslanderMelanoma in AsianMelanoma of the nail
Melanoma in Maori man Melanoma in Pacific Islander Melanoma in Chinese lady Nail melanoma

Melanoma risk factors

Certain risk factors increase the chances of someone getting the most common type of melanoma (superficial spreading melanoma) compared with someone else. These are listed below.

These relative risk factors are less important for the less common types of melanoma (apart from older age). These arise sporadically.

Examples of relative risk according to risk factor

Age over 50 years

  • A male aged over 70 years old is 10 times more likely to develop melanoma than a 30-year-old man. A female aged over 70 years old is 4 times more likely to develop melanoma than a female of 30.
  • But, melanoma is the most common cancer type in males aged between 25 and 40 years, and in females aged between 15 and 24 years.

Previous melanoma 

  • People who have had one melanoma are about 10 times more likely to develop a new melanoma than people who have never had a melanoma.

Having many moles 

  • People with more than 100 moles on the body are 7 times more likely to develop melanoma than people with fewer than 15 moles.

Having large or funny-looking (atypical) moles 

  • People with 5 or more atypical moles have 6 times the risk of those with none.

Previous non-melanoma skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, actinic keratosis 

  • People with sun-damaged skin are twice as likely to get melanoma as people without noticeable sun damage.

Family history of melanoma 

  • Having a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister or child) with a history of melanoma doubles the risk of getting melanoma compared with having no relatives with melanoma.
  • This risk is higher if 2 or more relatives have had a melanoma, if the relative was young when they had their melanoma, or if the relative has had more than one melanoma.

Light- or fair-coloured skin

  • This risk is higher still if you also have blond or red hair and blue or green eyes.
  • People who burn easily and never tan in the sun are twice as likely to have melanoma compared to people who tan easily and don't burn.
  • People with many freckles are twice as likely to get melanoma as people with none.

 Skin that burns easily and tans poorly 

  • Prior sunburns make you twice as likely to get melanoma compared to someone who has never been sunburned.

Using sunbeds or tanning salons 

  • Women who have used sun beds before the age of 35 have about one and a half times the risk of women who have never used sun beds.
  • The risk increases with the number of sun bed sessions.
Sun damage Many molesAn atypical moleFair skin and red hair
Melanoma in sun damaged skin Man with many moles Atypical mole Very fair skin and red hair

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