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Ottawa dermatologists were hoping to increase awareness and raise some money to expand treatment when they held a pop-up skin check clinic in the city’s south end last weekend.
What happened both surprised and concerned them.
Doctors, residents and students volunteering their time saw about 300 patients, some from as far away as Cornwall and Brockville for the free skin check. Of those patients, 60 were diagnosed with some form of skin cancer — 10 of which were melanomas, the most deadly form of skin cancer. The remaining cases were basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. It is not as severe as melanoma, but requires monitoring and treatment.
One of the cases of melanoma identified at the clinic was so advanced that the patient was sent to the hospital the following day for expedited treatment, said Dr. Mark Kirchhof, head of dermatology at The Ottawa Hospital.
“I was very surprised,” Kirchhof said of the number of cases of skin cancer identified during the clinic. “Maybe I will see two or three (incidences of melanoma) in a week when practising, but we saw 10 in one day.”
Kirchhof said the pandemic and a shortage of family physicians probably contributed to the number of people at the clinic, plus the high level of interest in the service.
He noted that between 150,000 and 200,000 Ottawa residents don’t have a family doctor and there is concern across the province about the lack of timely access to family physicians.
And while wait times to see a dermatologist in Ottawa have improved, it still can take between three and nine months to get an appointment.
The pandemic also likely added to the rates of undiagnosed skin cancers because some people were unable to or avoided seeing a doctor during the early part of the pandemic.
“We probably have a large group of people not seeing primary caregivers for a long time,” Kirchhof said.
That comes at a time when rates of skin cancer are increasing across Canada and elsewhere.
A recent McGill study found that rates of melanoma are on the rise in Canada and those living in southern and coastal areas are most at risk. Cutaneous melanoma causes more deaths than any other skin cancer and accounts for around 1.9 per cent of all cancer deaths in men and 1.2 per cent in women in Canada, according to a 2022 study from Dr. Ivan Litvinov, an associate professor in the department of medicine at McGill.
The Ottawa Hospital’s Kirchhof said all forms of skin cancer are increasing, in part because of an aging population that grew up during a time when extensive sun exposure was common.
“It is not uncommon to hear about patients who used mineral oil or baby oil and went out tanning. That cohort is now who we see in the clinic.”
Sunday’s free clinic was part of a fundraising effort to expand The Ottawa Hospital’s specialized Mohs surgery for skin cancer.
The surgical technique involves cutting away thin layers of skin and immediately examining it under a microscope. It gives doctors more accurate information about where the cancer stops, allowing them to avoid taking excess amounts of skin.
Kirchhof said the technique is used for skin cancer surgery on parts of the body, such as the nose, where there is no excess skin.
The Ottawa Hospital currently has one surgeon trained to perform the surgical technique. A $500,000 fundraising campaign currently underway will allow the hospital to add a second trained surgeon and increase capacity to five days a week, up from the current three days a week, over the next 10 years. Eventually, Kirchhof said, he hope the expanded facility becomes part of the hospital’s budget.
Kirchhof said 16 people — including dermatologists, students and residents — volunteered their time at the weekend clinic which raised about $12,500.
Based on the interest in the service, he said there will likely be other such clinics, possibly held in conjunction with workplace charitable campaigns in the fall.
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