Treatments for Melanoma

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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.

How to Talk to Your Doctor About Melanoma Treatment

It’s important to talk to your doctor to understand your treatment options and how experienced your doctor is in treating melanoma. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • How advanced is my melanoma?

  • What type of treatment do you recommend for my type and stage of skin cancer? Which institutions are best suited for treating patients like me?

  • How many patients with melanoma have you treated?

  • How many times have you performed the skin cancer removal procedure you recommend? What results have your patients had?

  • Will I need other treatments? What are the risks and benefits of these treatments? How will we know if the treatments are working?

  • What is my risk of a return of cancer and other complications and problems? Ask about your specific risk of problems and how your doctor plans to reduce or prevent them.

Key Takeaways

  • Melanoma is the least common but most dangerous kind of skin cancer and causes about 75% of skin cancer deaths.

  • Melanoma has a cure rate of 98% if treated before it spreads beyond the top layer of skin.

  • Treatment of melanoma is based on how far it has spread and your general health.

  • Treatment includes surgery to remove the tumor and possibly removal of lymph nodes.

  • Other treatments include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biologic therapy, and targeted therapy.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 4
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.