Dr De Wet wants to bring a skin cancer cure to more South Africans

A new micrographic surgery for the treatment of skin cancer is proving to have an almost 100% cure rate

Dr Johann de Wet.
Dr Johann de Wet.
Image: Supplied/Discovery Foundation

Born in Delareyville, the peanut-and-maize-farming district in the North West province, Dr Johann de Wet qualified as a medical doctor at the University of the Free State.

He worked in the UK and Canada, specialising in family medicine and as a lecturer at the University of Calgary. 

Studying the body’s largest organ: the skin

“It was while working in Canada that I became intrigued by the skin and dermatological disease. As the body’s largest organ, the skin can act as a window and an external system that communicates directly with the internal organ environment,” De Wet says. “Skin cancer screening and treatment also became a large focus of my practice, and I think this is what made me decide to specialise in dermatology.”

When he’s not expanding his knowledge in skin science, De Wet enjoys cycling, skiing and travelling with his wife and two sons.

He graduated with a diploma in dermatology from the University of Cardiff in Wales and an MMed in skin cancer from the University of Queensland in Australia before returning to SA in 2015.

He obtained his MMed degree in dermatology cum laude from the University of Stellenbosch and his fellowship from the College of Dermatologists with distinction, and specialised in dermatology at Cape Town’s Tygerberg Academic Hospital.

Taking a much closer look at skin cancers

De Wet’s area of special interest and passion lies in skin cancer diagnosis and treatment, specifically in Mohs micrographic surgery. This is a procedure where individual layers of cancer tissue are removed and examined in stages under a microscope until all cancer tissue has been removed.

“The wonderful thing about this form of skin cancer surgery is that cure rates close to 100% are achieved with minimal tissue removal. It’s cost-effective and associated with the best cosmetic outcomes when treating skin cancer.”

International guidelines on skin cancer treatment recommend Mohs micrographic surgery as a first-line treatment and gold standard for locally aggressive tumours, for tumours in places where it’s necessary to spare tissue, such as the face, and for patients at highest risk for the cancer spreading. Skin cancer is curable in most cases, if detected and treated early.

“My research goals are to improve the treatment of skin cancers with this medically advanced surgical technique and to help to establish this treatment in SA,” he says.

There is a worldwide epidemic of skin cancers, he says, and SA is no exception. 

A research dream for De Wet

De Wet’s research on the surgical treatment of melanoma in situ (cancer cells in the top layer of the skin) will contribute towards a master’s degree in pathology. He received a Discovery Foundation Academic Fellowship Award to fund this game-changing research. In 2020, he also completed a one-year fellowship in Mohs micrographic surgery through the American Society of Dermatological Surgery. Dr Pieter du Plessis, a pioneer of the procedure in SA, mentored him.

“Initially I thought my application had been unsuccessful as I heard of others who had received e-mails from Discovery. I hadn’t, but knew the competition was stiff. The next day I looked in my spam folder — and there was the mail. I was overwhelmed with joy. For the first time, it felt as though many years of study and sacrifice had paid off.”

“I hope to share my knowledge and experience with other health-care professionals and to help create awareness of this highly curable, but often devastating disease,” he says.

This article was created for the 2020 Discovery Foundation Awards and has been edited for the Discovery Magazine.

This article was paid for by the Discovery Foundation. 


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