Skin cancer

Types of skin cancer

There are three main types of skin cancer. All these types of skin cancer can be treated, however if they are left untreated, they can become life-threatening.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

BCC is the most common form of skin cancer and is the least serious if it is treated. This type of skin cancer may vary in appearance, and may appear as a lump, superficially (on the surface), or as a scar-like growth. BCC areas may bleed, ooze, or have crusted areas, and may appear red and scaly or have black or brown areas.

This form of cancer is more common in older people. Common places for BCC to form include on the face, ears, neck, arms, shoulders, and the back of the hands. You may be more likely to develop BCC if you have long-term sun damage to your skin or if you have fair skin.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

This form of skin cancer is the second most common, and may be more dangerous than BCC because of how it grows and spreads to other parts of the body if it is not treated. SCC mostly occurs due to damage from the sun, so common locations for SCC to develop include the scalp, ears, lips, and the back of your hands.

This type of skin cancer can develop in many forms, most of which grow quickly, are tender or painful, and ulcerate.


As the most serious type of skin cancer, melanoma is quick to spread to other parts of the body and can be fatal if it spreads beyond the skin surface. If found and treated early, melanoma is almost always curable. Melanoma may appear as a new, changed, itchy, or bleeding freckle or mole that looks unusual in shape or colour, and it may grow or change quickly.

In New Zealand, about 4,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma each year. According to Melanoma New Zealand, around 70% of melanoma cases occur in people over the age of 50. Melanoma may have a genetic component and your risk of developing melanoma may increase if you have two or more close relatives who have had melanoma. It may also be caused by sun damage.

Checking for signs

It is important to regularly check your skin for early signs of skin cancer, including checking places that you cannot see yourself or that do not normally get sun exposure. You may need help to check places such as your armpits, the bottom of your feet, behind your ears, your bottom, and your fingernails and toenails. You should be looking for new or existing spots such as moles or freckles that have changed or developed. The Ministry of Health recommends following ABCDE to look for signs of skin cancer:

Asymmetry - is one half different to the other?
Border - is there a spreading or irregular edge to the spot?
Colour - are there a number of different colours in the spot?
Diameter - is it growing or changing size?
Elevation/evolution - is it raised and has it changed since you last noticed it?

You can find more information on checking your skin for signs of skin cancer on the Ministry of Health website or at SunSmart.

Risk factors

In New Zealand, an estimated 80,000 people will develop non-melanoma skin cancer each year. New Zealand and Australia have the highest melanoma rates in the world, which can be accredited to the high UV (ultraviolet) exposure in our environment. Approximately 90% of skin cancer may be caused by overexposure to UV radiation from the sun. Some other risk factors include:

  • Previous history of skin cancer
  • Fair skin or skin that burns easily, and red, blonde, or fair hair
  • If you use or have used a sunbed
  • Lots of moles
  • If you get sunburnt
  • Being over 50 years old
  • If you are immunosuppressed

You can lessen your risk by practicing good sun safety habits, which can be read on our Sun Smart page.


Treatment will vary depending on the type of skin cancer you have and the stage it is at. After diagnosis and staging, your doctor or medical team will discuss what options will best suit you. You may need a biopsy to diagnose and stage your cancer, which will involve removing a small part of your cancerous spot. Common treatment for skin cancer is surgery to remove the spot, which is effective unless the cancer has spread to another area. If caught early enough, many people only need surgery to remove their skin cancer. If it has spread to another area, your doctor may recommend other treatment such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy, which they will discuss with you. If you have any questions about any of the treatment you receive, you should talk to your doctor.


The best way to prevent yourself from sun damage on your skin and to lower your risk of developing skin cancer is to practice sun smart habits. SunSmart and Melanoma New Zealand recommend the five S’s to prevent sun damage. This includes slipping on long clothing or a rash shirt, slopping on and reapplying sunscreen, slapping on a brimmed hat, seeking shade, and sliding on sunglasses. You can find more information on safe sun practices on our Sun Smart page.

Websites of interest

  • You can download the Firstcheck app that lets you upload a photo of your mole or spot for examination by a doctor
  • More information on melanoma can be found at Melanoma New Zealand
  • You can find more information about basal cell carcinoma at Health Navigator
  • Information about squamous cell carcinoma can be found here
  • If you want to monitor your skin and get frequent checks for skin cancer, you may want to visit MoleMap