Experts urge skin cancers be logged

Thousands of lives could be at risk from a skin cancer epidemic, with experts pleading with the Ministry of Health to take action.

Non-melanoma skin cancer is estimated to cost New Zealand $123 million a year but specialists and the Cancer Society say data collection on the disease stopped in 1958.

An estimated 67,000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers every year. That is 97 per cent of all skin cancers and accounted for more than four times the number of all other cancers combined.

The Cancer Society's deputy chief executive and health promotion manager, Dr Jan Pearson, wrote to the ministry in May asking it to start counting non-melanoma cases, saying the knowledge gap meant the financial and human cost was unknown.

Melanoma, the most fatal type of skin cancer, is monitored.

According to the ministry's latest cancer statistics, 2341 people were diagnosed with it in 2010 and it killed 324 people.

Pearson said 454 people were registered as dying of skin cancer that year, so about 130 people died of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Dr Swee Tan, executive director of the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute and a Hutt Hospital consultant plastic surgeon, is one of many cancer specialists backing calls for the ministry to start monitoring non-melanoma skin cancer cases.

Cases would increase because of our ageing population until sun-safety measures that started about 30 years ago began reducing the number, he said.

"We as a country need to look at our strategy for non-melanoma skin cancer and put a plan in place so we can look to the future and not get surprised."

Tan said New Zealand had one of the highest incidences in the world and should be following the lead of Australia, which had committed to continue to monitor the disease.

Both Tan and the Cancer Society believed a leadership group should be set up to work out the best way to monitor the cancer but the ministry's national clinical director of cancer, Andrew Simpson, said the idea had been dismissed.

"However, the ministry is aware of a study taking place in the Auckland region, which is looking at the diagnosis and treatment of non-melanoma skin cancers.

"The outcome of that study could help inform any future decision about the feasibility of collecting data on the incidence of this group of cancers."

In January, the ministry's independent advisory body, Cancer Control NZ, said collecting data would overwhelm the register because of the high numbers and would cost too much.

Auckland man Peter Kroon, who had part of his skull, jaw and his right eye removed last December because of an invasive squamous cell carcinoma, strongly supports the push to monitor non-melanoma skin cancer. The 50-year-old former roof tiler discovered a pea-sized lump under his right eyebrow in April last year and was experiencing headaches. His GP suspected cancer and tagged his case as urgent.

Despite complaints, seven months passed before cancer specialists saw him. By then, the tumour had grown to 35 centimetres in circumference.

As a result of the delayed treatment, Kroon got a lump sum payout of $131,000 from Accident Compensation Corporation earlier this year and he is considering complaining to the health and disability commissioner.

The Press