PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Delays in regular health care appointments during the pandemic caused melanoma cases to go undiagnosed, researchers at Oregon Health & Science University said. Many were only identified after cancer had progressed to later stages. 

OHSU collaborated with Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and colleagues at 12 academic centers with dedicated melanoma clinics across the country to publish a new study in the American Academy of Dermatology

The study found that more melanomas in advanced stages and with aggressive features were diagnosed during the pandemic, suggesting COVID-19 shutdowns caused a delay in the diagnosis and a delay in treatment. 

“Following the COVID-19 shutdowns, our team has seen more people in my clinic with more advanced melanomas, and that plays out in the data from this national study,” said Dr. Elizabeth Berry, associate professor of dermatology in the OHSU School of Medicine and a co-author on the study. “We are also seeing this trend in other types of skin cancer. Fortunately, people are now seeking care, but it will take us a while to catch up.”

Dr. Sancy Leachman, chair of the OHSU Department of Dermatology, said the results of the study were sobering. 

“It appears that some patients with melanoma couldn’t be seen as readily due to COVID-related restrictions, leading to worse, and potentially more life-threatening, cases of melanoma,” she said. 

The study saw increased rates of patient-identified melanomas and decreased rates of provider-identified melanomas during the pandemic, and cancers were in more advanced stages at the time of diagnosis. 

Scientists say this emphasizes the importance of screening people at a high risk of developing melanoma. 

Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer in part because it’s much more likely to spread to other parts of the body if it’s not caught and treated early. 

Leachman said the problem of cancer going undiagnosed for so long needs to be taken into consideration in future pandemics and balanced with the need for control of the virus. 

“If you are a high-risk melanoma patient or you see something suspicious — even if it is during a pandemic — it is incredibly important for you to be seen by a provider, even if it is done virtually or by sending a photograph,” she said. 

Hospitals are still experiencing backlogs due to the pandemic and OHSU says patients are still arriving with more complex and acute health care needs because of delays in care during the pandemic. 

OHSU encourages people to continue to get skin cancer screenings, regular check-ups and to not ignore health concerns. 

People can also perform skin checks on themselves. OHSU is raising awareness about what people can do to check their skin through a public health campaign called “Start Seeing Melanoma.” The campaign explains what to look for and how to properly do skin exams, and what people should do if they find something suspicious.