(NEW YORK) -- Melanoma Monday is the first Monday of National Melanoma Awareness Month, and with it, comes a reminder to prioritize your skin health.
Near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Caitlin Jones, a 30-year-old physician's assistant in Ohio, noticed a suspicious-looking mole on her scalp. Like many patients, she was concerned about going for an in-person appointment. But with some urging by her husband, she saw a dermatologist -- and was diagnosed with melanoma. Now, she has had surgery and is melanoma-free, and is grateful she sought medical care.
"I thought, this isn't important enough to pursue right now," said Jones.
She added that she did not want to be "another patient that didn't have to be there, and didn't have to be seen in the office, and put people at risk."
Health care providers say that Jones is not alone. Experts interviewed by ABC News said many patients have delayed or avoided coming to their appointments during the pandemic.
Jones, "like many of our patients right now during the COVID pandemic, perhaps waited a little longer than she could have to be seen," said Dr. Brian Gastman, surgical co-director of the melanoma and high-risk skin cancer program at Cleveland Clinic, who was part of the treatment team for Jones.
But dermatologists say that a timely, in-person visit can be important. Some skin cancers, like melanoma, can progress rapidly. If detected early, worrisome moles can be removed even before they become skin cancer. But delays in care can allow skin cancers to grow and spread in the body, making them more difficult to treat.
And doctors emphasize that even tele-dermatology appointments cannot replace an in-person visit with an experienced health care provider, who can check all of your skin for moles or spots that should be tested.
"I think that tele-dermatology, meaning remote dermatology, has become so much more common and accessible during the pandemic. But really, the one part of dermatology that you can't do remotely is skin checks. You really need to do those in person," said Dr. Whitney Bowe, a New York-based dermatologist.
Even between check-ups, it's important to get to know your skin and any moles that you have, experts recommend. The "ABCDEs of melanoma" is a list to guide you through things to look out for: a spot that is asymmetrical, has irregular borders, has many colors within it, has a diameter more than 0.6 cm, or is evolving or changing.
"Skin cancers do one thing, and one thing only, they change," said Dr. Mark Abdelmalek, board-certified dermatologist. "So, if there is a changing spot on your skin, whether it be red, brown, black, any color, that is a changing lesion, that is the most important thing to alert your dermatologist about."
Amid the pandemic, health care providers have taken steps to make it safe for their patients to come in for check-ups that can be potentially life-saving.
"Our health systems are taking every caution to keep us safe," said Jones. "We acknowledge COVID as a huge global health issue, but we just don't want to let progress in other directions of public health slip away."
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