‘Early detection is imperative’: skin cancer warning signs to know as pandemic causes huge drop in diagnoses

The lack of physical GP appointments during the diagnoses has led to many diagnoses being missed

More than a year of lockdown restrictions has taken its toll on day to day life, limiting the ability to do activities that were normally taken from granted - such as going to the doctors.

Before the pandemic struck, visiting your local GP when you felt unwell, or had a concern, was a simple process, with drop-in appointments and face-to-face consultations being standard practice.

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But social distancing constraints forced GPs to switch to telephone and online appointments, in an effort to minimise the risk of Covid spread.

Spotting skin cancer early can greatly improve the prognosis (Photo: Shutterstock)

Before the pandemic, some 70 per cent of appointments were face-to-face and only 30 per cent were by phone, video or online, according to NHS Englnad.

However, this switched to around 30 per cent face-to-face and 70 per cent remote at the height of the health crisis.

The lack of physical appointments has led to many diagnoses being missed as a result, particularly skin cancers cases.

More than 2,000 fewer diagnoses

Melanoma, a type of skin cancer, diagnoses fell by 28 per cent from April to November 2020 compared to the previous year, according to data from the National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service.

This equates to an estimated 2,671 fewer diagnoses than expected.

It is thought that the drop in skin cancer cases is a result of fewer people being able to visit their GP about potential skin cancers during the pandemic.

Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK and causes around 2,300 deaths every year.

Based on case numbers from previous years, projections indicate that incidence rates should have increased in 2020.

May last year saw the steepest drop off in melanoma diagnoses, with just 54 per cent of the expected number of diagnoses recorded in that month. In June this figure rose to 64 per cent, and August was even higher at 69 per cent.

Data suggests that there were even larger drops in the number of keratinocyte cancers diagnosed last year.

These cancers, also known as non-melanoma skin cancers, include basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (cSCC), and while less deadly than melanoma skin cancer, they are far more common.

The number of BCCs and cSCCs biopsied in April 2020 was just 22 per cent and 58 per cent respectively, of the number biopsied in April 2019. 

Dr Bav Shergill, chair of the British Association of Dermatologists’ Skin Cancer Prevention Committee, told NationalWorld: “This is another tragic side effect of the pandemic and is of massive concern to us.

“These missing cases will turn up eventually, sadly for the people concerned, the cancer will be more advanced, which will worsen their prognosis, and result in more complicated and costly treatment.    

“If you have been putting off going to see your doctor about changes to your skin due to the pandemic, please book in an appointment as soon as you can.”  

Skin cancer signs to look for

Health experts have said the drop in skin cancer diagnoses over the course of the pandemic is very concerning and urged people to visit their GP for a check-up if they have any worries.

Early detection is imperative when it comes to skin cancer, as it can become deadly if left untreated.

Dr Shergill, chair of the Skin Cancer Prevention Committee at the British Association of Dermatologists, advises that people look for the following signs to help spot signs of skin cancer early.

Spotting skin cancer early, especially melanoma, can greatly improve the prognosis, as melanomas can be deadly if they are left untreated. While keratinocyte cancers are less deadly, they can be fatal and do grow over time, which will leave a larger scar after being surgically removed.

Speaking to NationalWorld, he explained: “Knowing what to look for is imperative in early detection. Moles that change shape, colour, size, or symmetry could be a sign of skin cancer.

“When it comes to melanoma skin cancer, you should remember ABCDE: 

- Asymmetry – the two halves differ in shape   

- Border – the edges of the mole could be irregular, blurred or even show notches   

- Colour – look to see if it’s uneven; you may note different shades of black, brown and pink   

- Diameter – most melanomas change in size  

- Expert – if in doubt, check it out! Go and see your GP  

“A great way to note changes in existing moles is to take photos of your moles once a month.

“If you cannot do so for hard-to-reach spots, get a family member, friend, or partner to assist you. It’s important that you frequently check your entire body, including your scalp, ears and back.”

By comparison, non-melanoma skin cancers, such as squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, do not tend to appear as moles, but will instead show as changes to the skin, such as a wound that won’t heal, or a crusty area of the skin that will not go away.

If you notice any of these symptoms, Dr Shergill advises that you get checked by your GP and if they suspect it could be skin cancer, you will be referred to a dermatologist.

Prevention is the key in lowering the number of melanomas in the UK. Dr Shegill recommends taking the following steps to help reduce your risk and prevent serious damage to your skin:

- Wear protective clothing, such as sunglasses, a broad brimmed hat and a long sleeve top and trousers, where possible

- Stay in the shade if you can between 11am and 3pm, as this is when the sun's UV index is at its highest

- Use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which also has good UVA protection

- Reapply your sunscreen roughly once every two hours

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