Melissa Juried Kriebel
Piet Otto was diagnosed with melanoma about six years ago. Photo / Mead Norton
About six years ago, Rotorua man Piet Otto went to the doctor to get wax cleared from his ear.
Instead, he was diagnosed with melanoma.
Originally from South Africa, Otto said he was “always outdoors” when growing up, and he spent hours “surfing in the sea all the time”.
“I had no hat, I had no shirt, I had no sunblock,” the 76-year-old said.
Otto is sharing his story as data from November shows there are 292 patients waiting for BCC (basal cell carcinoma) or SCC (squamous cell carcinoma) surgical appointments for excision in the Lakes region. There were no patients waiting for melanoma removal.
It also comes as a skin care doctor is encouraging people to get checked and cover up this summer by wearing a hat and sunscreen.
Otto recalled visiting his family doctor when the melanoma spot – which was “half the size of a pea” – was discovered.
“I was scratching in my ear against wax and then I pushed the wax inside,” he said.
He went to the doctor and asked for the wax to be cleared.
“When she took hold of my ear, she immediately saw this melanoma spot behind my ear.
“She said I must come tomorrow, not a day later, and she [would] cut it out.”
Otto said it was cut out and sent to the laboratory. After going to a specialist surgeon, who did a further excision, he was given the all-clear.
“I was just pleased that she found it, because I also had some carcinomas on my skin, which are little sores you develop from sun [exposure] over many years.
“I’ve had about three of these sunspots – carcinomas – cut off my face.”
Otto has been living in New Zealand for 22 years, but believed the damage was done during his school years.
“What happens is, you get burnt when you’re young, and later in life, this catches up with you.”
He now wears long-sleeve shirts and a hat “all the time”.
Information received under the Official Information Act from Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand in November showed there were 292 patients with BCC or SCC waiting for a surgical appointment for excision in the Te Whatu Ora Lakes region.
Wait times were within four weeks for “cosmetically sensitive sites” and all others were within eight weeks.
Te Whatu Ora Lakes declined to release information about the number of melanoma, BCC and SCC skin cancer diagnoses from 2016 to 2021 on the grounds it would require substantial collation or research.
Diagnosis codes were applied to inpatient events longer than three hours’ duration. As skin lesion removal was performed in less than three hours in a skin lesion removal clinic, these procedures are not coded, the information said.
Collating this information would require manually identifying each person who attended the clinic and checking each one with the pathology.
However, in the Bay of Plenty region, information showed there were 1869 melanoma, BCC and SCC skin cancer diagnoses between 2018 and 2021.
Skinspots founder and MoleMap chief medical officer New Zealand, Dr Franz Strydom, said there was a two-year backlog of people who did not get checked for skin cancer during Covid.
“We’ve had, unfortunately, people who have died because they got melanoma and didn’t get the care.
“There’s still a lot of people who are not checking themselves, and probably still sitting on cancers that they should really be having cut off and treated.”
Those who should be getting checked included those with fair skin, people who live in areas where skin cancer is prevalent, and people who had “more than a normal amount” of freckles and moles on their arms and faces.
He encouraged people to get checked and cover up this summer by wearing a hat and sunscreen.
“Most of the sunburn we get will be on our faces and forearms, so wearing a hat will save you thousands of dollars – not needing future surgery on [your] face.”
How to be sun-smart this summer
Information provided by the Cancer Society said UV radiation was at its highest between 10am and 4pm from September to April.
Protection is required during these times and any time the UV index is three or above, even on a cloudy day.
The Cancer Society said to “slip” on clothing that covered as much skin as possible, such as collared shirts with long sleeves.
“Slip into the shade of a leafy tree, building or shade sail. Slipping into shade costs nothing and effectively blocks UV radiation.
“Slop on some sunscreen – seven teaspoons is required to cover an adult, and you need to apply it 20 minutes before going out in the sun and reapply every two hours, or more often if swimming or sweating.
“Slap on a wide-brimmed hat, wrap on some close-fitting sunglasses that are wraparound style and meet the New Zealand standard.”
For more information on being sun-smart, visit the SunSmart website.