Doctors have a lot of tools that can treat melanoma. Generally, the earlier you and your doctor catch it, the simpler it is to handle.
The treatment you get will depend on a few things:
- How deep the melanoma is in your skin
- Whether it has spread to other parts of your body
- Your general health
But no matter what, the first step is to remove the tumor from your skin, usually with surgery. Your doctor or surgeon will numb your skin and cut out the melanoma, plus some extra skin around it. You’ll have stitches for 1-2 weeks. If it isn’t deep, a doctor who treats skin, called a dermatologist, can do the operation during a regular surgery visit, and you can go home right after. This might be all you need, especially if the cancer is only in the top layer of your skin.
Treatments Below the Surface
If the tumor has grown deep into your skin or spread to other parts of your body, treatment is more complex. You might need surgery to remove lymph nodes near the melanoma to see if the cancer has spread there. For example, if the problem is on your arm, the surgeon might take out the lymph nodes under your armpit.
Other options are:
Immunotherapy. Sometimes called biologic therapy, this approach uses drugs help your immune system find and attack cancer cells. You might get them in a shot or go to a treatment center or hospital to get them through an IV every 2-4 weeks. If the melanoma is on your face, your doctor might prescribe a cream that revs up the immune cells only around the tumor, instead of in your whole body like the other drugs.
Sometimes, immunotherapy drugs can make your body attack your healthy organs. If that happens, you’ll need to stop taking them and get other treatment to stop the attack.
Chemotherapy. These drugs travel through your body and attack cancer cells. Some chemotherapy drugs are pills, and others you get through an IV.
Targeted therapy. Cancer happens when cells grow and divide too fast or don’t die when they should. This can happen because of bad genes inside the cells. In targeted therapy, drugs go after melanoma cells and turn off the genes that make them grow out of control.
This treatment tends to stop working well after a while. If that happens, you and your doctor will need to try another approach.
Radiation. A specialist will zap the area with high-energy rays, which kill cancer cells. It’s like getting an X-ray, but the dose is stronger.
Clinical trials. Scientists are working on finding new treatments for melanoma. But they have to test them and compare how they work to current therapies before they become available for everyone. They do this in research studies called clinical trials. Your doctor might know if you can sign up for one. If you’re accepted, you could get either a regular treatment that’s already available or the one that scientists are testing.
Your doctor might recommend more than one treatment at a time, like chemotherapy plus radiation. It depends on whether the cancer has spread and how far it has gone.
Melanoma treatments might cause other kinds of health problems, including:
- Swelling in your arms or legs, called lymphedema. It happens when your body holds on to fluid because your lymph system is blocked or damaged.
- Feeling tired
- Feeling sick to your stomach
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Anxiety or depression
The side effects you have depend on the stage of your disease, how much treatment you get and how long it takes, and your general health. Some of them can last for a while after you finish treatment. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any side effects, even if you think they’re no big deal. There are almost always ways to control them so you’ll feel better.
After Your Treatment
Melanoma can come back after treatment. It can show up where it was before, or it can start on other places on your skin or in an organ inside your body like your liver. Your doctor will want to watch you closely for signs that the disease has returned, so it’s important to keep your appointments for checkups.
How often you have to see your doctor depends on what stage your melanoma was in when you were diagnosed. Usually it’s every 6-12 months for disease in the early stages, and every 3-6 months for more advanced ones.