Managing Melanoma

Dr Maria Reeves in on a mission to make medical care more affordable for the masses. The Colombian-born skin cancer specialist has recently opened the Claris Clinic on the North Shore, and is offering skin checks for as little as a visit to the GP – just $50, forever.


“There is so much misunderstanding around skin cancer,” says the doctor. “I believe in educating, to empower people with the knowledge of prevention. We wash our hands and clean our teeth every day, applying sun lotion must become as much a natural part of our daily routines.”


Her words carry even more force following the recent revelation New Zealand’s now the world’s skin cancer capital. According to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, rates of melanoma nearly doubled between 1982 and 2011. The following year, says the Cancer Society, it killed 486 Kiwis. Skin cancer accounts for a tenth of all cancer cases, the equivalent of 51 per 100,000 New Zealanders (twice the rate of the UK, and above Australia’s peak of 49 per 100,000 in 2005), but mercifully that number is expected to fall in coming years. Not that that’s any cause for complacency.


“Right now, the incidents in New Zealand are increasing because we are catching the the last few decades of irresponsible sun exposure,” Maria says, “the days when people would sit in the sun with baby oil on their skin because they didn’t know any better. Over the next 20 years melanoma rates should drop significantly and future generations may not even experience them at all. That is why it is so important to educate people.”


Dr. Maria Reeves
Dr. Maria Reeves


Maria’s passion is palpable and the welcoming environment of her clinic mirrors her personal warmth. “Since I was younger, I’ve always been drawn to help others,” she tells me. While training as a first assistant surgeon in Colombia, Maria met her future husband, Andrew, who was visiting the country from the UK on a year out. (“His father worked for British Petroleum and he was taking a gap year to travel. I became his protector because many ex-pats were targets for kidnappers at that time in Colombia.”) Maria later joined him in England where she volunteered at a hospital, leading her to further pursue her career in medicine. In 2006, they had a daughter, Elena, and a couple of years later Andrew was offered a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity in engineering in New Zealand. It’s a far cry since the days of helping out on her father’s Colombian coffee plantation as a young girl.


The layout of her Claris Clinic is comparable to a spa (there is actually an adjoining health spa too), and all procedures, including surgeries, are conducted in the high-tech theatres on-site. Maria’s team includes a general surgeon and surgical oncologist along with a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and she also has access to a network of international skin specialists.


“There are so much misinformation out there,” she says. “Both depth (Breslow) and lateral spread (Clark) are significant. Once it reaches the blood vessels, or, even worse, the arteries, that is when it becomes very dangerous. And we’re talking lengths of less than a millimetre.” It is often changes to the skin’s surface which warn of what’s going on beneath: “Melanomas have shapes. There is one that I refer to as the angel of death because you can see the shapes of its wings.”


Early detection is vital, though prevention is, of course, better. Maria has teamed up with the makers of the SkinVission app which photographs and analyses moles in order to recommend whether or not they should be checked out by a specialist.


“People believe you can only have melanomas on areas of the body which are in contact with the sun,” the doctor says, “but you can have them anywhere. This is why I am so passionate about education and early detection and why I believe we need to help everyone have access to affordable health care.”


Skin Cancer at a Glance

There are three common types of skin cancer: melanoma is the most serious, accounting for more than two-thirds of skin cancer deaths; squamous cell carcinoma is easily treatable, but fatal if ignored; while basal cell carcinoma is the most common and least harmful, but may still require surgery.


Those most prone to skin cancer include people with fair skin, people with red hair, those who have used sunbeds from a young age or who were burnt badly as a child and those with a history of melanoma in the family. But most importantly, anyone is a potential victim.


New Zealanders are so at risk because of low ozone levels, our love of the outdoors and high levels of UV radiation, especially during the summer months. Many Kiwis are also fair-skinned.


According to the Cancer Society, more than 90% of all cases are attributed to overexposure to the sun. Seek shade whenever possible and always wear protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses. Make the application of sunscreen part of your daily routine.


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces