What Drugs Treat Melanoma?

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on August 08, 2020
3 min read

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer. While doctors don’t know the exact cause, they think your skin gets damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays and that increases your odds of getting it.

Even though melanoma can be a scary diagnosis, it can be treated if you find it early. What you and your doctor decide to do will depend on several things, including your overall health. But it also depends on the size of the melanoma and what stage it’s in. Part of your treatment may include some medications.

Immunotherapy uses medicine to get your own immune system to destroy cancer cells. There are several types of immunotherapy for treating melanoma.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs are relatively new and have been shown to work well in treating melanomas. They “target” proteins in your immune system that melanoma cells “turn off.” The drugs repair the proteins so your immune system is able to attack the melanoma cells. Several of these drugs include:

While side effects vary for each drug, you could have any of the following:

Cytokines. Your body produces proteins called cytokines. They naturally boost your immune system. Doctors sometimes prescribe artificial cytokines for people with melanoma. Research shows the drugs make it harder for cancer cells to divide, and help your body’s immune system respond to the cancerous cells.

Your doctor might prescribe aldesleukin (Proleukin) if your melanoma has metastasized, which means it has spread to other parts of your body. It’s also sometimes used with chemotherapy drugs.

If you’re having surgery to remove a melanoma, your doctors might suggest interferon alfa (Intron A, Roferon-A) afterward to help keep the melanoma from coming back. Side effects can be harsh, though, because you usually have to take high doses of the medicine for it to work. You could experience any of these:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Drowsiness
  • Low blood cell counts
  • Dizziness
  • Weight loss
  • Fluid buildup in the body
  • Abdominal pain
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting 

This group of drugs goes after the melanoma cells. They’re different from chemotherapy drugs, which attack all cells that divide fast, not just cancer cells. Your side effects from targeted drugs might not be as bad, either.

BRAF inhibitors. These drugs include encorafenib (Braftovi), dabrafenib (Tafinlar), and vemurafenib (Zelboraf). Your doctor will only prescribe them if your melanoma can’t be removed with surgery and you have what’s known as a BRAF gene mutation. About 40% to 60% of melanomas have this mutation.

The medications do help shrink and slow tumor growth for a period of time. Their side effects include:

MEK inhibitors. The MEK gene works with the BRAF gene. Your doctor could also prescribe MEK inhibitors like binimetinib (Mektovi), cobimetinib (Cotellic) and trametinib (Mekinist) if you have a melanoma with the BRAF gene mutation. 

Chemotherapy drugs are used to treat advanced melanoma. It’s often the last choice after immunotherapy and targeted drugs because it doesn’t work as well on melanoma as it does on other types of cancer.

Still, several chemotherapy drugs are used for melanoma, including:

Your doctor might give you a combination of these, or they may use them with immunotherapy drugs like interferon-alpha. You’ll usually get chemo every few weeks.

Your side effects will depend on which drug your doctor uses, and how long you have to get them, but they can include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Bruise and bleed easily
  • Increased risk of infection