It’s a common misconception that melanoma only affects ‘old people’ – and it’s true that most melanomas are found in people aged 50 years or older1. But younger people can also get skin cancer ... and unfortunately, they do.
New Zealand statistics show that Melanoma is the most common type of cancer in men aged 25 to 39, and the second most common cancer in women in the same age group2. In 2010, it was also the third most commonly registered cancer in young women - and the fourth in young men – aged 0 to 24 years3.
In total, around 13 Kiwis are diagnosed with melanoma every day – and over 350 New Zealanders die from it every year1. That’s almost as many people dying of melanoma as on our roads4. Melanoma is treatable if diagnosed early, but if the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it can be fatal.
So, no matter what your age, the risk of melanoma needs to be taken seriously.
Today’s sun exposure: tomorrow’s melanoma
On a more positive note, melanoma is rare in children and teenagers. However, getting sunburnt as a youngster can ‘lay the groundwork’ for skin cancers in later life.
In fact, the latest research shows that sun exposure in childhood gives a greater risk of melanoma than sun exposure in later life2. And that there’s a greater risk of melanoma from high doses of sun exposure occasionally such as during holidays and recreational activities, than with more continuous sun exposure like working outdoors regularly1.
That’s why it’s vital to be vigilant about protecting your children from the sun at all times – and by educating them about the risks of prolonged sun exposure and tanning. No one wants to get melanoma, at any age.
So who is most at risk of melanoma?
Regardless of age, some people have a higher melanoma risk due to factors such as skin type or family history. If your skin colour is light or pale, your hair colour is red or blonde, you burn easily, your skin is already sun damaged, you’ve used sunbeds, and/or you have a larger number of moles (particularly funny-looking moles), your risk level is higher.
However, having olive or darker skin (and darker hair) doesn’t give you a pass from the risk of skin cancer. While Māori and Pacific people have a much lower chance of getting melanoma, they often have thicker (more serious) melanomas once they’re detected1.
And anyone with a personal or family history of melanoma is at greater risk too. If a close relative (such as a parent, brother, sister or child) has had melanoma – or if you’ve had a melanoma removed – your risk is much higher.
If you’re not sure what your risk level is, take our 1-minute risk check here.
When it comes to melanoma, age does count
Remember, while skin colour and family history are also factors - in general, the older you get, the higher the risk. Around 70% of melanoma cases occur in people aged 50 years or older1.
However, a 2011 survey for the Cancer Society showed that while most people generally understand that fair skin means a higher risk of melanoma, they don’t realise that increasing age also greatly increases risk3. So if you’re 50 years or older - or even if you’re younger but think you may have a higher risk - we recommend a comprehensive, head to toe skin check such as a Full Body MoleMap every year, if not more often.
And, no matter what your age, gender and skin colour, make sure you check your skin and moles yourself regularly (at least every three months) and take proventative measures every day. This includes applying a broad-spectrum SFP 30+ sunscreen every day (even in winter months), wearing a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses and protective clothing when you’re in the sun, and reducing your sun exposure between 10am and 4pm during daylight savings months.
1. Melanoma NZ: https://www.melanoma.org.nz/be-informed/understanding 2. Ministry of Health: https://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/conditions-and-treatments/diseases-and-illnesses/melanoma 3. NIWA UV Workshop, 2014: Trends in melanoma incidence and mortality in New Zealand: https://www.niwa.co.nz/sites/niwa.co.nz/files/Sneyd_UV%20Workshop_2014_Melanoma.pdf 4. Ministry of Transport: https://www.transport.govt.nz/mot-resources/road-safety-resources/road-deaths/2018-road-deaths