Practical Advice on Living With Melanoma

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on August 04, 2016
3 min read

Almost 80,000 cases of melanoma -- the least common but most dangerous form of skin cancer -- will be diagnosed in the United States this year. 

When caught early, most can be removed by surgery and patients make a full recovery. But depending on how much the tumor has grown and whether it has spread, your treatment may also include immunotherapy, chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments. 

As you go through treatment and recovery, keep in mind that once you’ve had one melanoma, you have a higher risk for a getting a second, as well as other skin cancers.

While you can go on living a full life, you should be extra careful about protecting your skin. 

Care for your scar: Your doctor will cut your melanoma out with a scalpel, along with a border of normal-looking skin around it. That’s to make sure all the cancerous cells are gone. If the incision is fairly small, the scar may be minor and could treated with an over-the-counter scar cream or camouflaged with cosmetics. If more is removed, your doctor may need to use a skin graft. They would take skin from another part of your body that is easily covered with clothing.  

Carefully follow your doctor’s instructions for taking care of the wound so it heals properly and doesn’t become infected. 

Keep the sun from hitting your skin: Because almost all melanomas are caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays,  it’s critical to protect your skin from sunlight, especially the spot where you had melanoma. Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher each day. Put it on 20 minutes before going outdoors, and don’t forget to put it on again every 2 hours. 

Wearing close-weave clothing with long sleeves and long pants can protect your skin. Wide-brimmed hats and UV-protectant sunglasses also work. 

Look for special clothing marked with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) or 30 or more. At the beach or pool, wear a rash guard or swim shirt instead of a regular swimsuit.

Set your schedule around the sun: You can still enjoy the outdoors, but planning activities like swimming or hiking before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. will keep you out of the sun when it’s strongest.  Even simple changes, like walking on the shady side of the street, can help.

Embrace the sun-free look: While an indoor tanning salon might sound like a good alternative to the sun’s harmful rays, a fake tan can be just as dangerous as a real one. People who have used tanning beds 10 or more times over their lives have 34% higher chance of melanoma.

Take advantage of new technology: New DNA enzyme repair creams may potentially help with skin cancer prevention. 

There is also evidence that vitamin B3, may help those at high risk for melanoma. Ask your doctor about it.

Get your vitamin D through food and supplements: Vitamin D is needed for bone growth and to strengthen the immune system. You usually get it through sun exposure and food. If you are avoiding the sun because of your history of melanoma, talk to your doctor about how you can get enough D through your diet. Fatty fish, fortified orange juice, and milk are all good sources. You can also try supplements.

Get regular follow-ups: Once your melanoma is removed, your doctor will want to keep up with you to make sure your cancer hasn’t returned or come back in another spot. 

How often you go will depend on how deep your tumor had gone and whether it had spread. The first follow-up visit will be within 10 to 14 days to see that the wound is healing and to remove any sutures. After that, you should have a physical exam every 3 to 6 months, depending on the stage of your cancer and how many moles you have. Eventually, if all goes well, you can start to go once a year. 

Check yourself: In addition to regular visits to your dermatologist, you should examine your skin once a month. Check for new moles or any that have grown or changed, have uneven edges or colors, or have started itching or bleeding -- and be thorough. 

Have someone else check your scalp and other hard-to-see areas, and keep track of all moles using a paper or digital body map.