Recent reports show over 16,000 Australians will be diagnosed with melanoma this year and melanoma will climb from being the fourth to the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in 2020 in Australia. As well as many families overlooking the basics of sun safety and care, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many to forego or delay check-ups and treatment.
In this interview, Dr Helena Rosengren explains why she is passionate about being a skin cancer doctor, training and getting more women upskilled in the field, and how the pandemic is impacting skin cancer treatments.
- What made you originally want to enter the field of skin cancer?
I was excited to dedicate my career to a worthwhile cause that would help reduce suffering and save lives. The career choice delivered diversity, allowing me to also follow my passion in teaching and research in the same field.
- What has been the most challenging aspect or experience in your career to date? Why?
Setting up a practice on my own, as I had a vision to provide an exceptional skin cancer service and have the freedom to train other doctors on site. The financial and time commitment was huge, and it made juggling the needs of a young family tricky.
- How has the pandemic impacted the industry and your particular field?
Emerging research indicates that skin cancer diagnosis and treatment have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These delays could result in more invasive treatment and, potentially, an increased risk of death.
Melanomas can be difficult to diagnose as they can be any size, any colour (including skin coloured), raised or flat, rough or smooth and can occur on areas of the body that have never or rarely seen direct sun.
During the lock down, many skin cancer clinics, including Skin Repair Skin Cancer Clinic, continued to do full skin checks with lymph node assessment for patients who had been previously diagnosed with more serious skin cancers or a melanoma. Some also continued to do checks of individual spots concerning patients – for example, because of noticeable changes in size or colour, tenderness, or bleeding. A lot of skin cancer was detected this way, but many established skin cancers and also melanomas went by unnoticed as a full skin check resulting in careful dermoscopic review of all skin spots by a trained skin cancer doctor could not be done.
Despite thorough recall processes to have patients present once restrictions eased, there are still inevitably those who delay follow up appointments. Others have put off assessment or treatment for the understandable fear of catching coronavirus.
- What are the biggest challenges for professionals in your field in 2021?
For women doctors in General Practice there is always a challenge in providing excellent medical care and after hours service, while also looking after the needs of their own children and partner.
Most female doctors attract complex consultations requiring listening skills and empathy, which can leave them drained at the end of the day.
- How do you plan to combat these challenges?
Traditionally Skin Cancer Medicine has been the domain of our male colleagues, but being a female trainer I have helped open the doors to substantial training for female doctors. Being a skin cancer doctor is generally less stressful than being a GP and appointments are more likely to run on time, making it easier to pick kids up on time from school and day care.
We provide a 6 month break from the rigors of general practice while we upskill doctors in skin cancer medicine, and for many female GPs, going on to specialise in skin cancer medicine can be an attractive option to balance career with family. Of the 15 doctors I have provided 6 month training to, 13 have been women, and I have two long term women doctors working alongside me now.
- What are you most looking forward to in 2021 professionally?
I am developing a certificate course in Skin Cancer Medicine for James Cook University that will launch early 2021. It has taken a lot of time and effort and I’m really looking forward to seeing the fruit of my efforts launch successfully and hopefully upskill GP colleagues in a really meaningful way.
About the expert
Dr Helena Rosengren is a Skin Cancer doctor, researcher, lecturer, and Fellow of the Skin Cancer College of Australasia. Her vision is to stop the loss of lives and suffering to skin cancer in Australia through prevention and early detection.
She is the founder and Medical Director of Skin Repair Skin Cancer Clinic in Townsville, North Queensland, where they have recently seen their 20,000th new skin check patient and provide internships to doctors wishing to upskill in skin cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Image description: Dr Helena Rosengren has shoulder length, brown and wavy hair. She is wearing a blue sleeveless top underneath a sheer white blouse, with a long, jewelled necklace.