Treatment for melanoma

After removing the melanoma, the doctor will measure how thick it is. This helps them decide on the best treatment for you. You will usually need a second operation to take away more tissue.

Surgery is usually the only treatment needed. If there is risk of the melanoma coming back, your specialist will talk to you about further treatment. Treatment after surgery is called adjuvant treatment. It is often given as part of a research trial.

It is rare for melanoma in young people to spread to other parts of the body. If it does, you may be given immunotherapy, targeted therapies or chemotherapy to slow down and control it.

There are different types of surgery for melanoma:

  • Wide local excision – taking normal-looking skin from around and underneath the melanoma to make sure no melanoma cells are left.
  • Skin graft (if a wide or deep area of skin has been removed) – taking a layer of skin from a melanoma-free part of your body (donor site) to cover where the melanoma was (grafted area).
  • Operation to remove the lymph nodes (lymph node dissection) – surgery depends on the group of lymph nodes that are removed.

Treatment for melanoma

Melanomas in young people are usually found early and cured. Surgery is the most common treatment for melanoma.

After removing the melanoma, the doctor will measure how thin or thick it is. This is called the Breslow thickness. Knowing this helps the team decide on the best treatment for you. Most melanomas are 1 millimetre or less deep.

You will usually need a second operation to take away some healthy skin and tissue around where the melanoma was. This is called a wide local excision. You will have this done to make sure no melanoma cells are left. Occasionally, enough tissue is removed during the excision biopsy, so you will not need another operation.

Surgery is usually the only treatment needed for melanoma. If there is risk of the melanoma coming back, your specialist will talk to you about having treatment as part of a clinical trial. This is to try to reduce the risk, and is called adjuvant treatment. But it is not standard treatment.

It is rare for melanoma in young people to spread to other parts of the body. If it has spread, other treatments may be used to slow down and control it.

Treatment for melanoma explained

Hear Ruth Fox, Macmillan Skin Cancer Nurse Specialist, talk about treatment types and having treatment for melanoma.

About our cancer information videos

Treatment for melanoma explained

Hear Ruth Fox, Macmillan Skin Cancer Nurse Specialist, talk about treatment types and having treatment for melanoma.

About our cancer information videos


Surgery for melanoma

You can read about what happens before and after an operation in our general information about surgery.

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 some normal-looking skin from around and underneath the melanoma. This is to make sure there are no melanoma cells left. The amount of skin the surgeon removes depends on how deep the melanoma is (the Breslow thickness).

The wound can usually be stitched together. It will look red and sore at first, but this will slowly get better. Your skin nurse will tell you how to take care of it. After 5 to 14 days, your stitches will be removed. You will have a scar, but usually it is small and becomes less noticeable with time.

If you have had a wide or deep area of skin removed, you might need a skin graft.

Skin graft

If it’s needed, you have a skin graft operation at the same time as the wide local excision. First, the surgeon takes a layer of skin from a part of your body without the melanoma (called the donor site). Then they use this skin to cover the area where they removed the melanoma (called the grafted area).

You have a dressing covering the grafted area until it heals. At first, the area will look red and swollen. But eventually, it will heal and the redness will fade. You will also have a dressing covering the donor site, to protect it from getting infected.

After a skin graft, you can usually go home 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 need to rest and move carefully 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

You have this operation under a general anaesthetic. You usually need to stay in hospital for a few days. It is sometimes called a lymph node dissection.

The operation will depend on the group of lymph nodes that are removed. Your specialist or skin nurse will talk to you about this. We have general information about what to expect when you have surgery.

After the operation, you are at a higher risk of getting 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 talk to you about this.

We have general information about lymphoedema. This information is written for people of all ages, not just for young adults.


Adjuvant treatment for melanoma

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 (Breslow thickness)
  • whether tests show it has spread to the lymph nodes.

Adjuvant treatment for melanoma is often given in a cancer research trial. This means doctors are still testing the treatment. So we do not yet know how well it works at helping people with melanoma live longer.

Your cancer specialist will talk to you about any trials happening at the moment and what may be suitable for you. They will give you all the information you need. You can talk to them and your family before you decide what to do.

Usually drugs called targeted therapies are given as adjuvant treatment for melanoma. Targeted therapies (sometimes called biological therapies) interfere with the way cancer cells grow and divide. There are different types. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can tell you which drug may be used.

We have general information about targeted therapies. This is written for people of all ages, not just for young adults.


Treatment if the melanoma spreads

It is rare for melanoma in young people to spread to other parts of the body. But if it does, you may be given these treatments to slow down and control it:

  • Immunotherapy uses drugs that boost your immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapies are drugs that interfere with the way cancer cells communicate with each other. This can affect the way they grow and divide.
  • Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells.

We have more information on these treatments. This is written for people of all ages, not just for young adults.


Other treatments

Other treatments can help control symptoms, such as pain. The doctor or nurse will explain them to you. This information is written for people of all ages, not just for young adults.

Back to Melanoma

What is melanoma?

This section is for teenagers and young adults. It is about a type of skin cancer called melanoma.

Having tests for melanoma

If you have symptoms, your GP will examine you and decide whether to refer you to a hospital specialist for further tests.

After treatment

Cancer can have a big impact on your life, even after you have finished treatment.