Surgeon warns of spike in skin cancers following pandemic

Mater

Queenslanders who have put their skin checks on the backburner during the COVID-19 pandemic are being advised to get checked – with the number of cases being seen by surgeons at Plastic Surgery Queensland currently double their pre-pandemic level.

Over the past six months, the Mater Private Clinic-based consultants have seen a disturbing rise in new cases of skin cancer, according to reconstructive surgeon Dr Andrew Hadj.

“We have seen a surge in cases presenting, which have been unfortunately delayed due to the impact COVID-19 has had over the past two years,” Dr Hadj said.

“There’s been consistently well over 100 new referrals per month. During COVID-19 lockdowns it was about 40 to 50 referrals per month – so that’s more than 100 per cent increase in volume.” 

Shining the spotlight on National Skin Cancer Action Week (which runs until 26 November), Dr Hadj said Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) was the most common skin cancer presentation, accounting for 75% of all skin cancers seen by the team.

Dr Hadj said BCCs were a locally aggressive, slow growing tumour of the skin that if left untreated could cause significant issues.

“Twenty percent of skin cancers we see are squamous cell carcinomas (common form of non-life-threatening skin cancer) and around 5% are melanomas,” Dr Hadj said.

“I am astonished by the aggressiveness of skin cancers in young people in Queensland. This could be a matter of life or death for some patients.”

Dr Hadj said in June, 109 new patients presented with skin cancers to Plastic Surgery Queensland compared to 50 patients in June 2019. In July, 97 patients presented at the clinic, compared to 43 patients two years prior.

Dr Hadj’s patient, Ipswich mother-of-two Jamie-Leigh Torrisi, is warning young Australians to be sun smart and reapply sunscreen throughout the day following the removal of more than half a dozen basal cell carcinomas from her head.

The Mater Private Hospital Brisbane patient said she was “paying the price” for not reapplying sunscreen after playing sport during much of her childhood. 

“I have had eight skin cancers cut out and most have been along my hairline. I always wore a soft brimmed hat and used sunscreen but never reapplied it,” she said.

“One of the scars I have from a cancer being cut out is 8cm long across my forehead.

“Having being diagnosed with skin cancer several years ago I am now very much in tune with my skin and any changes.”

Ms Torrisi, who has fair-coloured skin, said she constantly tells her two olive-skinned sons to apply and reapply sunscreen.

“Just because they have darker skin doesn’t mean they can’t get skin cancer,” she said.

Dr Hadj said there has been some reluctance to seek medical care during the pandemic due to concerns about coming into contact with people with COVID-19.

“It is critical to stress that these lesions can cause quite devastating impacts if left untreated for even three to six months and do need urgent care with a plastic surgeon, dermatologist or local GP,” he said.

Dr Hadj said if patients were worried about travelling to specialist clinics, telehealth reviews were an option.

With summer around the corner, Dr Hadj said UV radiation directly damaged cells in the skin, leading to pigmentation (melanin).

“Subsequent excessive sun exposure (UV A and B) radiation invariably leads to cancer formation,” Dr Hadj said.

“Many Caucasian Queenslanders unfortunately have the least-adaptive skin type that is both most impacted by UV radiation and are at the highest risk.

“Daily care should be taken to protect any and all exposed skin during the day, so be sure to use hats, sun-cream and long sleeves.”

Warning signs of a basal cell carcinoma:

  • An open sore that does not heal, and may bleed, ooze or crust
  • A reddish patch or irritated area on the face, chest, shoulder, arm or leg
  • A shiny bump or nodule that is pearly or clear, pink, red or white
  • A small pink growth with a slightly raised, rolled edge
  • A scar-like area

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