How a Skin Cancer Expert Empowers Patients

How a Skin Cancer Expert Empowers Patients from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.


Dr. Anna Pavlick is a medical oncologist with over 20 years of experience treating patients with skin cancer and is the founding Director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. To learn more about Dr. Pavlick, visit here.

What are steps does skin cancer expert Dr. Anna Pavlick take to empower her patients? Dr. Pavlick explains how self-education and being comfortable with your healthcare team are key components of patient empowerment.



Yeah. Dr. Pavlik, how do you empower patients? 

Dr. Pavlick:

You know, when I talk to patients I really do try to number one: educate them. I am big believer in bad artwork, because I’m a bad artist. And so I really try to draw out schematics to help patients understand how they therapy that I’m proposing is going to work, so they understand the mechanism. Patients will also go home with printed handouts so that they can go back and read about what we talked about, because many times patients absorb maybe one-quarter of what’s been said in a consult. 

I encourage people to bring their family members or friends so that they can hear; two sets of ears is always better than one. And I fully support them; if they want to go get a second opinion, my answer is, “Absolutely.” I do not get offended. I feel that if – because a lot of times the patient’s going to say, “I don’t want a second opinion, but my family does.” You’ve got to live with your family. Go get the second opinion. 99 percent of the time, experts who do this for a living all have the same answers. And so it just is going to solidify for your family that the right thing is being done, and then you can also decide where do you feel most comfortable?  

If Dr. A and Dr. B tell you the same thing, what environment do you feel most comfortable in, so in the event that you had questions, or you didn’t feel well, where do you want to go? So, I strongly encourage that. And if somebody comes back and says, “You know, I really think that this place fits me better,” my answer is, “That’s absolutely fine; thank you for letting me know. If there’s anything I can do, please reach out.” Because, again, bottom line is I just want the best outcome for the patient.  

Why Do Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Need a Multidisciplinary Care Team?

Why Do Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Need a Multidisciplinary Care Team? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Skin cancer expert Dr. Anna Pavlick explains what it means to have advanced non-melanoma skin cancer and discusses why patients should seek a multidisciplinary care team.

Dr. Anna Pavlick is a medical oncologist with over 20 years of experience treating patients with skin cancer and is the founding Director of the Cutaneous Oncology Program at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. To learn more about Dr. Pavlick, visit here.



Let’s start with some basic information for patients. What is advanced non-melanoma skin cancer? 

Dr. Pavlick:

That’s actually a really good question, because many people think skin cancer is just skin cancer is just skin cancer. But when it comes to non-melanoma skin cancers, those are the types of cancers that are really much more common than melanoma. So we’re talking about your basal cell cancer, your squamous cell cancer, and even a more rare type of cancer called Merkel cell. Locally advanced non-melanoma skin cancers mean that these are lesions that are not easily removed by the dermatologist. So, it’s not a tiny little thing where you go in, you usually have a Mohs procedure for most of these types of cutaneous malignancies.  

And a Mohs procedure is where a dermatologic surgeon will go and take thin layers – layer by layer – and look at it with a pathologist in order to determine if they’ve successfully cleared out the cancer. It allows for us to be very meticulous in how we take things out, but it also allows us to have a nice, clean, smaller resection area, so healing is also much nicer than if you had to cut out a big chunk of tissue.  

But when you have locally advanced disease, sometimes that includes having such extensive disease that maybe cutting the lesion out is going to cause disfigurement, or they may be involved lymph nodes, and so we’re afraid that maybe this cancer can now go to other parts of the body. You know, it is just not a simple cut it out and you’re done kind of cancer. 

It’s a kind of cancer that really requires a multidisciplinary team to really think about what are the best ways to manage this for the patient that’s going to provide the patient with the best cosmetic outcome, and long-term outcome control as well.  


Who’s on that team?   

Dr. Pavlick:

So in our academic center that team, or even in a community setting, that team should include a dermatologist, a medical oncologist, a surgeon – depending on where that cancer is located – many times it’s on the head and neck, so it would be a head and neck surgeon. If it’s an extremity or a trunk lesion, then it may be an oncologic general surgeon. Radiation oncology is also important to include because sometimes these are very radiation-sensitive tumors, and radiation may be a part of the whole treatment plan.  

How Can Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Participate in Their Care?

How Can Advanced Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer Patients Participate in Their Care? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Vernon Sondak shares encouraging advice for patients to speak up and be active participants in their advanced non-melanoma skin cancer care and treatment decisions.

Dr. Vernon Sondak is the Chair of the Department of Cutaneous Oncology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Learn more about Dr. Sondak, here.


Dr. Sondak, do you think a patient should consider a second opinion or consulting a specialist? If so, what would you say to them, to make them feel comfortable to do that?

Dr. Sondak:                

So, I would remind everyone – as we said earlier – advanced skin cancer is not something you can pass off. “Oh, it’s just skin cancer. Everybody gets skin cancer. It’s just minor. Just put a band aid on it.” I’ve seen people who’ve neglected these cancers for a long time, thinking they weren’t serious, or thinking that the treatments were gonna be too awful, too disfiguring, or too toxic. That’s just not the case anymore.

Everyone with advanced skin cancers should have cutting edge appropriate treatment. Cutting edge doesn’t always mean brand new. It might mean the same surgery we’ve been doing for many years. Just done properly and appropriately for that patient.

So, this is a kind of cancer that usually should be treated by very experienced teams. Especially when drug treatment is needed, often when radiation is needed, and certainly when major surgery is needed. Not just the use of the drugs, but the sequence. Which drug first? Which drug second? When is surgery appropriate? When do we do the radiation?

These are sophisticated decisions, and every patient is different. So, we strongly encourage people to go to a center that has a whole panel of different specialists. And they work and talk to each other. They work with each other, work together, talk to each other, and come up with a plan for each patient. If you just go to one doctor, sometimes – an old saying – when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. There are times when somebody says, “Well, I can do radiation.” Surgeon says, “I can do surgery.” Oncologist says, “I can do chemo, or targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.”

We want them all together, saying “Yeah, but what should we do for this patient?” That’s the goal that we’re striving for. That’s when you’re gonna be the most likely to get the most successful outcome.


Dr. Sondak, what would you like to leave patients with? Are you hopeful?

Dr. Sondak:                

We have seen the most dramatic progress in the treatment of these forms of cancer of the skin – melanoma, merkel cell cancer. basal and squamous cell cancers – in my lifetime. Progress I never ever thought I would see. We are not curing everybody, but we are curing a lot more people than we used to.

Yet I still see things about these forms of cancer on the internet that say, “Oh, this is really aggressive. This needs to be treated right away. Don’t wait. Don’t make me go get a second opinion. Have somebody deal with it.”

No. Time out. First thing, it’s better to do it right than to do it right away. Second thing, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and if you go down the wrong treatment path, sometimes you can’t undo that. There is always time to stop and ask, “Am I doing the right thing? Is there somebody who really specializes in this that I should be seeing?”

But the most important advice at all, of course, is you’ve got to get the diagnosis made in the first place. So, that means you have to be willing to go to the doctor, to the dermatologist, to say, “Hey, this doesn’t seem right. It’s just not healing. It just keeps getting worse. What’s going on?”, and then have to be willing to follow up and go through treatments.

If you do, we are extremely optimistic. We are seeing progress, responses, cures that we never thought possible. So, there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic. It’s not always easy. There are plenty of side effects of all the treatments that we talked about. Including surgery, radiation, and all the drugs. But it’s not like it was even 10 years ago. Huge progress for people at any age. So, really, we really are optimistic.