A Reminder of Skin Cancer During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Acta Dermatovenerol Croat. 2021 Apr;291(1):58.

Abstract

The year 2020 has been marked by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, caused by an RNA virus called SARS-COV2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus). The fight against this epidemic has become the center of our daily clinical practice as well as of our private lives, in which avoiding infection has become one of our most important goals. Even though COVID-19 is a potentially lethal disease, especially for the elderly and people with chronic diseases, it did not cause all the other life-threatening diseases to vanish. On the contrary, many scheduled medical activities and procedures, especially preventive and non-urgent internal and surgical activities, had to be postponed due to COVID-19 crisis. This interruption in the health care system can negatively affect the diagnosis and management of our patients with other health issues, namely malignant skin tumors, of which melanoma is the most aggressive. In this letter, we as dermatovenereologists from the Croatian Referral Centre of The Ministry of Health for Melanoma needed to express our concern regarding the increasing number of patients with delayed diagnosis of skin cancer, with special emphasis on melanoma detection and treatment. In the last few months, a large number of our newly-diagnosed patients with melanoma, as well as those with non-melanoma skin cancers, reported that they had noticed a suspicious skin lesion a few months ago but decided not to seek help from dermatologist due to the worrisome epidemiologic situation. In the current environment, clinical skin examination may be viewed as less important and thus postponed, but neglecting melanoma throughout the virus outbreak may lead to increased rates of morbidity, mortality, and consequently a greater financial burden for the health system (1). There are several reasons for such a relaxed attitude towards skin health in our patients. Unlike cardiac, pulmonary, or digestive difficulties, which patients consider life-threatening and for which they seek emergency care despite the coronavirus pandemic, skin tumors do not cause great subjective or significantly noticeable objective symptoms. Moreover, all of the skin tumors and especially melanoma , mostly present as small changes of just a few millimeters in diameter in the early stage at which they are prognostically most favorable. For the average person with no medical education, such small lesions usually do not cause any concern as they have no awareness of the fact that small and inconspicuous skin lesions may be dangerous and potentially even lethal. According to the recommendations concerning patient management during COVID-19 pandemic, oncological examinations should still be performed regularly (2). In spite of that, the cancelation of appointments, especially by patients who are being monitored for high-risk lesions, is inevitable when COVID-19 is disrupting everyone's lives. With the pandemic evolving and no clear solutions in sight, now is the time to emphasize the importance of self-examination and teledermatology in early melanoma diagnosis. Even though diagnosing and managing pigmented skin lesions usually requires face-to-face examinations and dermoscopy as a crucial tool in early melanoma detection, in these times, and especially for people with a higher risk of SARS-COV2 infection, remote communication could prevent delays resulting in worse prognosis and could also eliminate the risk of infecting healthcare workers. Moreover, teledermatology can also be initiated by doctors asking patients to monitor lesions between clinical visits (3). However, we should not rely solely on this technology but should instead assess every patient individually and insist on a face-to-face examination for those at greater risk, with the aim that, if necessary, surgery be performed in timely manner. The collaboration between general practitioners and dermatologists represents an important aspect of achieving the most rational and effective health care in terms of performing triage of patients who can be assessed by teledermatology as well as referring to hospital centers those who need face-to-face examination and further treatment. During the first breakout of the epidemic in March 2020, the multidisciplinary team for melanoma from the Croatian National Referral Melanoma Centre provided recommendations for the management of patients with melanoma during COVID epidemic, designed according to the guidelines of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) (4) and considering the specifics of health care and clinical practice in the Republic of Croatia. Due to epidemic circumstances, preventive actions such as Euromelanoma and many other campaigns that included massive preventive skin examinations of the population and which were conducted for years by Croatian dermatologists throughout the country, could not be organized this year. This is particularly worrisome because on average about 800 patients are diagnosed with melanoma annually in Croatia, of which 60 during public health preventive actions. Despite these circumstances, we were able to maintain public awareness of the importance of early skin cancer recognition by sending the message through different media such as newspapers, television, and social media (Facebook and Instagram). We find that now more than ever it is essential to remind and teach the population about the importance of regular monthly skin self-examinations and recognition of atypical lesions. Clearly, a thorough dermatological examination includes full skin examination from head to toe. Herein we would also like to remind our readers that most skin cancers develop in the head and neck area, which is the most UV-exposed part of the body. Therefore, despite the epidemic conditions, the removal of patients' masks and thorough inspection of the face is mandatory. We find it most practical and efficient to perform the body and scalp examination first, followed by the face examination after the patient gets dressed. Prior to removal of the mask, we ask the patient not to talk during close examination. Even though this could make dermoscopic examination harder to perform, we strongly suggest wearing a protective shield and mask during close examination whenever possible. Between patients, the examining room should be disinfected and ventilated. As doctors, we live in uncertain times when we are heavily burdened by the currently unstoppable COVID epidemic, always awaiting new instructions from the state administration every day and wondering whether perhaps tomorrow we dermatologists will be assigned solely to the service of patients with COVID-19. In the end, we would like to once again remind you that despite the ravaging COVID pandemic and all the epidemiological measures that come with it, other diseases still exist. It is expected of us to draw attention to the still growing incidence of skin cancers and the serious consequences that can occur as a result of a delayed diagnosis.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • Croatia / epidemiology
  • Delayed Diagnosis*
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Humans
  • Melanoma / diagnosis*
  • Melanoma / therapy*
  • Pandemics
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Skin Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Skin Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Time-to-Treatment*