Treatment for melanoma
The main treatment for melanoma is surgery. With very early stage melanoma, surgery may be the only treatment needed. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy may be used as well if the melanoma is large or has spread. Your doctors at the hospital will plan your treatment and consider the stage of the cancer, your age and general health.
- Excision surgery: Surgery has a high chance of curing an early stage melanoma. This can be done by either removing the whole mole or wide local excision to make sure no more melanoma cells are left behind. This surgery is normally done under local anaesthetic in the day surgery unit. The surgeon usually removes 1cm of skin all around the melanoma.
- Skin grafts: Sometimes a wider area of skin is removed and the surgeon may need to do a skin graft. In this case, layers of skin are taken from another part of your body and placed over the area where the melanoma has been removed. If you have a skin graft, you may have to return to the hospital for dressings.
- Removing lymph nodes: If melanoma is found in the lymph nodes, these are removed under general anaesthetic. This helps to prevent cancer spreading to other parts of the body. See Understanding Melanoma booklet for more information on surgery.
Chemotherapy is a treatment using drugs that cure or control cancer. Chemotherapy is used to treat melanoma that has spread to other parts of the body at the time of diagnosis. It can also be given if the melanoma returns following the treatment.
The chemotherapy drugs can be used on their own or together. Some of the drugs used are dacarbazine, vinblastine or cisplatin. See the booklet Understanding Chemotherapy, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information on chemotherapy.
These treatments use the body’s immune system to fight cancer. One of the drugs used is called interferon. It is usually given as a small injection under your skin for a year or more.
Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. It kills the melanoma cells while doing as little harm as possible to normal skin.
Radiotherapy is generally not used to treat melanoma of the skin. Usually it is used if the melanoma has spread to other parts of your body such as your brain or spinal cord. Please see our Understanding Radiotherapy booklet, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more about radiotherapy.
The side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your general health. Some treatments may cause fatigue, nausea, vomiting, sore mouth, diarrhoea, loss of appetite and perhaps hair loss, or numbness or pins and needles in your hands and feet. This varies from person to person. Chemotherapy can make you more likely to get infections. This is because it affects the bone marrow where white cells that fight infection are made.
Radiotherapy to the skin alone has few side-effects. The treated area may become a little red and sore, like sunburn. It may cause some hair loss when given to parts of the body with hair. External radiotherapy does not make you radioactive and you can mix freely with family and friends. Most side-effects are well controlled with medication. For more information on side-effects, please see Understanding Melanoma booklet.
Advanced treatment of melanoma
Advanced cancer is cancer that has spread to distant parts of your body. This can include your liver, brain or bones. Treatment depends on your general health and how advanced the cancer is. It may be possible to keep the cancer under control by surgery or chemotherapy. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can both help control symptoms by shrinking a cancer so that it does not cause pressure and pain and slows its growth. This is called palliative treatment.
If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.
Read next: Living with melanoma.