Treatment for melanoma
Melanomas in young people are usually found early and cured. Surgery is the most common treatment for melanoma.
After the melanoma is removed (with an excision biopsy), the doctor measures how thin or thick it is in millimetres from the skin surface to the deepest melanoma cells. This is called the Breslow thickness, and knowing this helps the doctors decide on the best treatment for you. Most melanomas are only 1 millimetre or less deep.
Very occasionally, enough tissue is removed during the excision biopsy and another operation isn’t needed. However, you’ll usually need an operation to take away more tissue. This is called a wide local excision, and it’s done to make sure no melanoma cells are left behind.
Usually surgery is the only treatment that’s needed for melanoma. But after surgery, if there’s more risk of the melanoma coming back, your specialist may talk to you about having treatment in a clinical trial to try to reduce the risk. This is called adjuvant treatment for melanoma, but it isn’t standard treatment.
It’s rare for melanoma in young people to spread to other parts of the body, but if it does then other treatments may be used to slow it down and control it.
New national guidelines for treating melanoma were due in June 2015 and we will update our information as soon as possible.
For general info about what happens before and after an operation see our surgery section.
Wide local excision
You have this operation under a general anaesthetic as an outpatient. You usually go home later the same day. The surgeon takes away some normal-looking skin from all around and underneath the area of the melanoma. This is to make sure no melanoma cells are left behind. The amount of skin the surgeon removes depends on how deep the melanoma is (the Breslow thickness).
After surgery the wound will look red and sore at first, but it’ll gradually settle. Your skin nurse will tell you how to take care of it. After 5-14 days you’ll have your stitches removed. It will leave you with a scar that’s usually small and eventually fades.
If you’ve had a wide or a deep area of skin removed, you might need a skin graft.
A skin graft is a type of operation that's done at the same time as the wide local excision. The surgeon takes a layer of skin from one part of the body, to cover the area where the melanoma was removed.
You’ll have a dressing that’s left in place while the area where your melanoma was (called the graft) heals. The area will look red and swollen to begin with, but eventually it will heal and the redness will fade. You’ll also have a dressing where the skin was taken from (called the donor site) to protect it from infection.
After a skin graft you can usually go home on the same day, or you might need a short stay in hospital. It depends on where the graft is and how big it is. You’ll need to take things easy for the first couple of weeks to let the graft heal properly.
Your doctor or skin nurse will tell you more about what to expect.
Operation to remove the lymph nodes
This operation is done under a general anaesthetic and you’ll usually be in hospital for a few days. It’s sometimes called a lymph node dissection.
What to expect will depend on the group of lymph nodes you’re having removed. Your specialist or your skin nurse will talk this over with you. We have general info about what to expect when you have surgery.
After the operation you’re at more risk of getting a swelling called lymphoedema. For example, you could get lymphoedema:
- in the arm if the lymph nodes in your armpit were removed
- in the leg if the lymph nodes in your groin were removed.
There are things you can do to reduce the risk of lymphoedema. Your nurse will go over this with you.
We have general information about lymphoedema. This information is written for people of all ages, not just for young adults.
Adjuvant treatment for melanomaBack to top
Treatment after surgery to try to reduce the risk of a cancer coming back is called adjuvant treatment. The risk of a melanoma coming back depends on:
- how thick it is (its Breslow thickness)
- whether tests show that it’s spread to the lymph nodes.
Adjuvant treatment for melanoma is given in a clinical research trial. This means that doctors are still testing the treatment, so we don’t know how well it works at helping people with melanoma live longer.
Your cancer specialist will talk to you about any trials going on and what’s suitable for you. You will be given all the information and will be able to talk things over with your specialist and family before you decide what to do.
Usually drugs called targeted therapies are given as adjuvant treatment for melanoma, and there are different types. Targeted therapies (sometimes called biological therapies) use substances that your body naturally makes to destroy cancer cells. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can tell you which drug may be used.
We have general information about targeted therapies. This information is written for people of all ages, not just for young adults.
New drugs called cancer growth inhibitors are also being tested in melanoma trials. They are a type of biological therapy. They stop cancer cells from sending signals to each other telling them to grow and divide.
Treatment if the melanoma spreadsBack to top
This is rare in young people, but if the melanoma spreads then you may be given these treatments to slow down and control it:
- Chemotherapy – is the use of anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells.
- Targeted therapies – are drugs that use substances your body naturally makes to destroy cancer cells.
- Radiotherapy – uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells.
This information is about having treatment for melanoma. We also have more information about:
If you're looking for information about melanoma in people of all ages, please see our general melanoma section.