January 28, 2021 – Mary Bashir, a 48-year-old Boston-area high school teacher, is no stranger to skin cancer screenings. The beauty marks that dot her skin have always made her hyper-vigilant about controls.
But when she noticed a red dot on her nose – the size of a Sharpie point – she had a difficult decision to make. It was the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and she didn’t even go to grocery stores, let alone medical facilities.
“The last place I wanted to go was a doctor’s office,” Bashir says. “I just had to consider the potential risks of letting something like this go.”
Her instinct told her to come in ASAP and she listened. The point turned out to be basal cell carcinoma, a common type of skin cancer that, if left untreated, can spread to nearby bone or tissue. On May 1, she had a procedure to remove it.
Dermatologists warn that there are thousands of patients who, like Bashir, are reluctant to come to a clinical setting due to COVID issues. But unlike Bashir, many patients choose to wait – and the consequences, they say, can be fatal.
While there is no data yet on how COVID-19 has affected skin cancer screenings, cancer screenings overall have seen a significant decline. Results released in May 2020 by the Epic Health Research Network show an 86% to 94% drop in preventive cancer screenings nationwide, compared to equivalent weeks from 2017 to 2019.
“It’s a situation that is a national crisis,” says Jukes Namm, MD, surgeon-oncologist at Loma Linda University Health in California. “The numbers for our dermatology group have dropped significantly. Patients are worried and afraid of contracting COVID, so they don’t come. “
But he predicts that the real consequences are yet to come. These likely won’t be apparent until this summer, when people who postponed visits have more advanced skin cancers. And, he says, transmission typically occurs at social gatherings, not in doctor’s offices.
Like many other types of physician’s offices, dermatology offices have seen a dramatic increase in virtual visits. But while video works well for mental health appointments and more general exams, it’s not the ideal method for skin screening, says Abigail Waldman, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. and Clinical Director of Mohs Surgery, Common Skin. cancer treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.