After a melanoma diagnosis, a doctor can describe treatment choices and discuss the results expected with each melanoma treatment option. The doctor and patient can work together to develop a melanoma treatment plan that fits the patient’s needs. Treatment for melanoma depends on the extent of the disease, the patient’s age and general health, and other factors.
People with melanoma are often treated by a team of specialists. The team may include a dermatologist, surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and plastic surgeon.
Before starting melanoma treatment, the patient might want a second opinion about the diagnosis and the treatment plan. Some insurance companies require a second opinion; others may cover a second opinion if the patient or doctor requests it.
People with melanoma often want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. They want to learn all they can about their disease and the melanoma treatment options available to them. However, shock and stress after a diagnosis of a melanoma can make it hard to think of everything to ask the doctor. It often helps to make a list of questions before an appointment. To help remember what the doctor says, patients may take notes or ask whether they may use a tape recorder. Some also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor—to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.
People with melanoma may have surgery, chemotherapy, biological therapy, or radiation therapy. Patients may also have a combination of melanoma treatments.
At any stage of disease, people with melanoma may have treatment to control pain and other symptoms of melanoma, to relieve the side effects of therapy, and to ease emotional and practical problems. This kind of treatment is called symptom management, supportive care, or palliative care.
The doctor is the best person to describe the treatment choices and discuss the expected results.
A patient may want to talk to the doctor about taking part in a clinical trial, a research study of new treatment methods.
Melanoma Skin Cancer Surgery
Surgery is the most commonly used melanoma treatment. The surgeon removes the tumor and some normal tissue around it. This procedure reduces the chance that cancer cells will be left in the area. The width and depth of surrounding skin that needs to be removed depends on the thickness of the melanoma and how deeply it has invaded the skin:
The doctor may be able to completely remove a very thin melanoma during the biopsy. Further surgery may not be necessary.
If the melanoma was not completely removed during the biopsy, the doctor takes out the remaining tumor. In most cases, additional surgery is performed to remove normal-looking tissue around the tumor (called the margin) to make sure all melanoma cells are removed. This is often necessary, even for thin melanomas. If the melanoma is thick, the doctor may need to remove a larger margin of tissue.
If a large area of tissue is removed, the surgeon may do a skin graft. For this procedure, the doctor uses skin from another part of the body to replace the skin that was removed.
Lymph nodes near the tumor may be removed because cancer can spread through the lymphatic system. If the pathologist finds cancer cells in the lymph nodes, it may mean that the disease has also spread to other parts of the body.
Two procedures are used to remove the lymph nodes:
Sentinel lymph node biopsy—The sentinel lymph node biopsy is done after the biopsy of the melanoma but before the wider excision of the tumor. A radioactive substance is injected near the melanoma. The surgeon follows the movement of the substance on a computer screen. The first lymph node(s) to take up the substance is called the sentinel lymph node(s). (The imaging study is called lymphoscintigraphy. The procedure to identify the sentinel node(s) is called sentinel lymph node mapping.) The surgeon removes the sentinel node(s) to check for cancer cells.
If a sentinel node contains cancer cells, the surgeon removes the rest of the lymph nodes in the area. However, if a sentinel node does not contain cancer cells, no additional lymph nodes are removed.
Lymph node dissection—The surgeon removes all the lymph nodes in the area of the melanoma.
Therapy may be given after surgery to kill cancer cells that remain in the body. This treatment is called adjuvant therapy. The patient may receive biological therapy.
Surgery is generally not effective in controlling melanoma that has spread to other parts of the body. In such cases, doctors may use other methods of treatment, such as chemotherapy, biological therapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of these methods.
Chemotherapy for Melanoma Skin Cancer
Chemotherapy, the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, is sometimes used to treat melanoma. The drugs are usually given in cycles: a treatment period followed by a recovery period, then another treatment period, and so on. Usually a patient has chemotherapy as an outpatient (at the hospital, at the doctor’s office, or at home). However, depending on which drugs are given and the patient’s general health, a short hospital stay may be needed.
People with melanoma may receive chemotherapy in one of the following ways:
By mouth or injection—Either way, the drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body.
Isolated limb perfusion (also called isolated arterial perfusion)—For melanoma on an arm or leg, chemotherapy drugs are put directly into the bloodstream of that limb. The flow of blood to and from the limb is stopped for a while. This allows most of the drug to reach the tumor directly. Most of the chemotherapy remains in that limb.
The drugs may be heated before injection. This type of chemotherapy is called hyperthermic perfusion.
Biological Therapy for Melanoma Skin Cancer
Biological therapy (also called immunotherapy) is a form of treatment that uses the body’s immune system, either directly or indirectly, to fight cancer or to reduce side effects caused by some cancer treatments. Biological therapy for melanoma skin cancer uses substances called cytokines. The body normally produces cytokines in small amounts in response to infections and other diseases. Using modern laboratory techniques, scientists can produce cytokines in large amounts. In some cases, biological therapy given after surgery can help prevent melanoma from recurring. For patients with metastatic melanoma or a high risk of recurrence, interferon alpha and interleukin-2 (also called IL-2 or aldesleukin) may be recommended after surgery.
Radiation Therapy for Melanoma Skin Cancer
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. A large machine directs radiation at the body. The patient usually undergoes this form of melanoma treatment at a hospital or clinic, five days a week for several weeks. Radiation therapy may be used to help control melanoma that has spread to the brain, bones, and other parts of the body. It may shrink the tumor and relieve symptoms.
Recurrent melanoma treatments depend on where the cancer came back, which treatments the patient has already received, and other factors. As with Stage IV melanoma, treatment usually cannot cure melanoma that recurs. Palliative care is often an important part of the treatment plan. Many patients have palliative care to ease their symptoms while they are getting anticancer treatments to slow the progress of the disease. Some receive only palliative care to improve their quality of life by easing pain, nausea, and other symptoms.
The patient may have one of the following:
Surgery to remove the tumor
Radiation therapy, biological therapy, or chemotherapy to relieve symptoms
Heated chemotherapy drugs injected directly into the tumor