What Happened to Melanoma Care During COVID-19 Sequestration

Bruce Jancin

November 13, 2020

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Initial evidence suggests that the deliberate delays in melanoma care that occurred during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place lockdown last spring had a significant negative impact on patient outcomes, Rebecca I. Hartman, MD, MPH, said at a virtual forum on cutaneous malignancies jointly presented by Postgraduate Institute for Medicine and Global Academy for Medication Education.

This is not what National Comprehensive Cancer Network officials expected when they issued short-term recommendations on how to manage cutaneous melanoma during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those recommendations for restriction of care, which Hartman characterized as "pretty significant changes from how we typically practice melanoma care in the U.S.," came at a time when there was justifiable concern that the first COVID-19 surge would strain the U.S. health care system beyond the breaking point.

The rationale given for the NCCN recommendations was that most time-to-treat studies have shown no adverse patient outcomes for 90-day delays in treatment, even for thicker melanomas. But those studies, all retrospective, have been called into question. And the first real-world data on the impact of care restrictions during the lockdown, reported by Italian dermatologists, highlights adverse effects with potentially far-reaching consequences, noted Hartman, director of melanoma epidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a dermatologist, Harvard University, Boston.

Analysis of the impact of lockdown-induced delays in melanoma care is not merely an academic exercise, she added. While everyone hopes that the spring 2020 COVID-19 shelter-in-place was a once-in-a-lifetime event, there's no guarantee that will be the case. Moreover, the lockdown provides a natural experiment addressing the possible consequences of melanoma care delays on patient outcomes, a topic that for ethical reasons could never be addressed in a randomized trial.

The short-term NCCN recommendations included the use of excisional biopsies for melanoma diagnosis whenever possible; and delay of up to 3 months for wide local excision of in situ melanoma, any invasive melanoma with negative margins, and even T1 melanomas with positive margins provided the bulk of the lesion had been excised. The guidance also suggested delaying sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB), along with increased use of neoadjuvant therapy in patients with clinically palpable regional lymph nodes in order to delay surgery for up to 8 weeks. Single-agent systemic therapy at the least-frequent dosing was advised in order to minimize toxicity and reduce the need for additional health care resources: for example, nivolumab (Opdivo) at 480 mg every 4 weeks instead of every 2 weeks, and pembrolizumab (Keytruda) at 400 mg every 6 weeks, rather than every 3 weeks.

So, that's what the NCCN recommended. Here's what actually happened during shelter-in-place as captured in Hartman's survey of 18 U.S. members of the Melanoma Prevention Working Group, all practicing dermatology in centers particularly hard-hit in the first wave of the pandemic: In-person new melanoma patient visits plunged from an average of 4.83 per week per provider to 0.83 per week. Telemedicine visits with new melanoma patients went from zero prepandemic to 0.67 visits per week per provider, which doesn't come close to making up for the drop in in-person visits. Interestingly, two respondents reported turning to gene-expression profile testing for patient prognostication because of delays in SLNB.

Wide local excision was delayed by an average of 6 weeks in roughly one-third of melanoma patients with early tumor stage disease, regardless of margin status. For patients with stage T1b disease, wide local excision was typically performed on time during shelter-in-place; however, SLNB was delayed by an average of 5 weeks in 22% of patients with positive margins and 28% of those with negative margins. In contrast, 80% of patients with more advanced T2-T4 melanoma underwent on-schedule definitive management with wide local excision and SLNB, Hartman reported.

Critics have taken issue with the NCCN's conclusion that most time-to-treatment studies show no harm arising from 90-day treatment delays. A review of the relevant published literature by Hartman's Harvard colleagues, published in July, found that the evidence is mixed. "There is insufficient evidence to definitively conclude that delayed wide resection after gross removal of the primary melanoma is without harm," they concluded in the review.

Spanish dermatologists performed a modeling study in order to estimate the potential impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on 5- and 10-year survival of melanoma patients. Using the growth rate of a random sample of 1,000 melanomas to model estimates of tumor thickness after various delays, coupled with American Joint Committee on Cancer survival data for different T stages, they estimated that 5-year survival would be reduced from 94.2% to 92.3% with a 90-day delay in diagnosis, and that 10-year survival would drop from 90.0% to 87.6%.

But that's merely modeling. Francesco Ricci, MD, PhD, and colleagues from the melanoma unit at the Istituto Dermopatico dell'Immacolata, Rome, have provided a first look at the real-world impact of the lockdown. In the prelockdown period of January through March 9th, 2020, the referral center averaged 2.3 new melanoma diagnoses per day. During the Rome lockdown, from March 10th through May 3rd, this figure dropped to a mean of 0.6 melanoma diagnoses per day. Postlockdown, from May 4th to June 6th, the average climbed to 1.3 per day. The rate of newly diagnosed nodular melanoma was 5.5-fold greater postlockdown, compared with prelockdown; the rate of ulcerated melanoma was 4.9-fold greater.

"We can hypothesize that this may have been due to delays in diagnosis and care," Hartman commented. "This is important because we know that nodular melanoma as well as ulceration tend to have a worse prognosis in terms of mortality."

The mean Breslow thickness of newly diagnosed melanomas was 0.88 mm prelockdown, 0.66 mm during lockdown, and 1.96 mm postlockdown. The investigators speculated that the reduced Breslow thickness of melanomas diagnosed during lockdown might be explained by a greater willingness of more health-conscious people to defy the shelter-in-place instructions because of their concern about a suspicious skin lesion. "Though it is way too early to gauge the consequences of such diagnostic delay, should this issue be neglected, dermatologists and their patients may pay a higher price later with increased morbidity, mortality, and financial burden," according to the investigators.

Hartman observed that it will be important to learn whether similar experiences occurred elsewhere during lockdown.

Another speaker, John M. Kirkwood, MD, said he has seen several melanoma patients referred from outside centers who had delays of up to 3 months in sentinel lymph node management of T2 and T3 tumors during lockdown who now have widespread metastatic disease.

"Now, is that anecdotal? I don't know, it's just worrisome to me," commented Kirkwood, professor of medicine, dermatology, and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh.

Merrick Ross, MD, professor of surgical oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, recalled, "There was a period of time [during the lockdown] when we weren't allowed to do certain elective procedures, if you want to call cancer surgery elective."

"It's too soon to talk about outcomes because a lot of patients are still in the process of being treated after what I would consider a significant delay in diagnosis," the surgeon added.

An audience member asked if there will be an opportunity to see data on the damage done by delaying melanoma management as compared to lives saved through the lockdown for COVID-19. Ross replied that M.D. Anderson is in the midst of an institution-wide study analyzing the delay in diagnosis of a range of cancers.

"In our melanoma center it is absolutely clear, although we're still collecting data, that the median tumor thickness is much higher since the lockdown," Ross commented.

Hartman said she and her coinvestigators in the Melanoma Prevention Working Group are attempting to tally up the damage done via the lockdown by delaying melanoma diagnosis and treatment. But she agreed with the questioner that the most important thing is overall net lives saved through shelter-in-place.

"I'm sure that, separately, nondermatologists – perhaps infectious disease doctors and internists – are looking at how many lives were saved by the lockdown policy. So I do think all that data will come out," Hartman predicted.

She reported having no financial conflicts regarding her presentation.

Global Academy for Medical Education and this news organization are owned by the same company.

SOURCE: Hartman, R. Cutaneous malignancies forum.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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