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Treatments for Melanoma


Catherine Spader, RN

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Melanoma is the most dangerous kind of skin cancer and causes about 75% of skin cancer deaths. Fortunately, melanoma is less common than other types of skin cancer (nonmelanoma skin cancer), and it has a cure rate of 98% if treated before it spreads beyond the top layer of your skin. Treatment of melanoma includes removing the tumor and often medications and other treatments. Your doctor will determine the best treatment plan for you based on how far the melanoma has spread and your general health.

The focus of this article is the treatment of melanoma skin cancer. For information about treatment of nonmelanoma skin cancer, including basal and squamous cell skin cancers, go to Treatments for Skin Cancer (Nonmelanoma).

Surgical Excision of Melanoma

Melanoma treatment begins with the surgical removal of the tumor. Doctors may perform a lymph node biopsy at the same time to check if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. These surgeries are generally performed on an outpatient basis. Most people are able to return to their normal activities within a few days. Find a dermatologist for skin cancer removal on the Healthgrades website.

Your doctor will use one of the following methods to remove melanoma:

  • Mohs micrographic surgery removes the tumor layer by layer. Each layer of skin tissue is checked for cancer cells with a microscope. Your doctor takes away layers until no cancer cells are seen. This technique causes the least amount of scarring. It is a good choice for high-risk tumors and tumors on the face and ears.

  • Wide excision cuts out a tumor, some tissue below it, and some surrounding healthy tissue. The amount of tissue removed depends on the size and depth of the tumor. Your doctor may also use the wide excision technique to biopsy a tumor to diagnose skin cancer.

Other Melanoma Treatments

Surgical removal may be the only treatment needed for some small tumors that have not spread beyond the top layer of skin. Your doctor will develop a more complex treatment plan for melanoma that has grown or spread beyond the top layers of skin.

Treatment plans include one or more of the following treatments. These treatments all have a variety of side effects and possible complications, which can be serious. Talk to your doctor to be sure you understand all the benefits and risks of the following treatments:

  • Biologic therapy, or immunotherapy, includes medications that boost your body’s immune system to help fight off melanoma. It can also decrease the chance that cancer returns after treatment. Biologic therapy may help reduce the side effects of other cancer treatments. Doctors often use it with other forms of treatment such as chemotherapy.

  • Targeted therapy is a form of treatment that targets cancer cells without harming the normal cells. These drugs work by specifically killing cancer cells, blocking their growth, or preventing their spread.

  • Chemotherapy is medication that kills cancer cells, as well as some normal cells. Chemotherapy is given in pill form or through an IV.

  • Radiation therapy uses radiation to kill cancer cells.

  • Lymph node removal involves surgery to remove skin cancer that has spread to lymph nodes. This helps prevent the spread of skin cancer to other parts of the body.

  • Clinical trials study new medications and treatments. Clinical trials are developed to advance cancer research. Many melanoma patients are enrolled in clinical trials, especially if their cancer is not responding to conventional treatments or they have unmanageable side effects.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Mar 25, 2016

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