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Patient education: Melanoma treatment; localized melanoma (Beyond the Basics)

Jeffrey A Sosman, MD
Section Editor
Michael B Atkins, MD
Deputy Editor
Michael E Ross, MD
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Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer that starts in the pigment-producing skin cells (melanocytes). Melanoma is the sixth most common cancer in the United States, and the number of melanoma cases diagnosed annually is increasing faster than for any other cancer. Although the explanation for this is unknown, it may be related to increased recreational sun exposure and global changes, such as ozone depletion.

In contrast to other types of skin cancers (eg, squamous cell or basal cell cancers) that usually develop on sun-exposed areas of the body, melanomas can develop anywhere on the skin surface, as well as on the mucous membranes lining the mouth, nose, and genital areas. If left untreated, melanoma can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body much more frequently than is typical for other types of skin cancers. Fortunately, when detected at an early stage, melanoma treatment is often effective in limiting the spread of the disease.

This topic reviews the diagnosis and treatment of localized melanoma. A separate topic discusses the treatment of advanced and metastatic melanoma. (See "Patient education: Melanoma treatment; advanced or metastatic melanoma (Beyond the Basics)".)


Appearance of lesion — Similar to other types of skin cancer, melanoma is diagnosed based upon the appearance of a skin lesion. Melanomas usually present as a changing mole or a new mole, most often with dark pigment. They can occur anywhere on the skin surface, including on the back, the scalp, and other areas that may be easy to miss with self-inspection. Abnormal findings can be described with an acronym, ABCDE (picture 1):

A – Asymmetry (one side is different from opposite side) (picture 2)

B – Border irregularities (jagged, uneven edge) (picture 3)

C – Color variegation (ie, different colors within the same region) (picture 4)

D – Diameter greater than 6 mm (if larger than a pencil eraser, evaluation recommended)

E – Evolution (change) in color, shape, or symptoms over time (picture 5)

Other abnormal features include inflammation (swelling) and bleeding or crusting. While the majority of melanomas are pigmented (have color), the lesion can occasionally lack pigment and be the same color as the surrounding skin. They can also look like a blood blister or a tick bite. A person who notices any of these changes should make an appointment with a healthcare provider as soon as possible. Referral to a dermatologist (a physician who specializes in skin conditions) may be recommended.

Biopsy — To determine if the abnormality is a melanoma, a small piece of the abnormal skin lesion (or if it is small, the entire area) is removed and examined under a microscope to determine if precancerous or cancerous cells are present. A biopsy deep enough to include the deepest part of the lesion is preferred.


Once melanoma is diagnosed, the next step is to determine the clinical stage or extent of disease spread. Accurate staging is important to determine the most appropriate treatment.

The American Joint Committee on Cancer has defined a staging system for melanoma that takes into consideration the following characteristics:

The thickness of the tumor

Ulceration (loss of skin) over the surface of the melanoma

Mitotic rate (number of dividing cells in the tumor per square mm)

Involvement of the "regional" (nearby) lymph nodes and/or the lymphatic vessels that lead to them

Evidence of tumor spread beyond the lymph nodes (distant metastases)

A thorough history and physical examination are typically performed to evaluate the possibility of lymph node or distant spread of the tumor.

Imaging tests may also be recommended, particularly for patients with advanced melanoma, those with a previous melanoma, and those with signs or symptoms that might be suggestive of metastasis. Possible tests include a chest X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, positron emission tomography (PET)/CT, or even a brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Further, such imaging is frequently indicated if the lymph nodes are evaluated and found to be involved. (See 'Evaluating the lymph nodes' below.)

Surgery — In most patients, surgery is required to remove (or excise) the entire melanoma. Generally, 1 to 2 centimeters (about 0.4 to 0.8 inches) of normal skin surrounding the entire lesion must also be removed. This procedure is called a wide local excision. This decreases the chance that the melanoma will recur at the same site.

The type of physician (eg, dermatologist, general surgeon, cancer surgeon, head and neck surgeon, or plastic surgeon) who will perform the surgery depends upon the location and size of the wide local excision. Most procedures are performed as a day surgery in a hospital or surgical center. Most patients are able to go home later the same day.

Occasionally, skin grafting may be necessary to promote healing and replace skin that has been removed. In some patients (such as those with a melanoma on the face or neck), it may be difficult to remove a sufficient amount of normal skin to ensure adequate margins. In such cases, it is critical to make certain at a minimum that there are no tumor cells extending to the resection margins (ie, the edges of the area of skin that was removed).

If an enlarged lymph node (gland) is present, it may be biopsied, often prior to the wide local excision, to aid in surgical planning. Even if enlarged lymph nodes cannot be detected, the lymph nodes frequently will be evaluated during the wide local excision procedure.

Evaluating the lymph nodes — The most common site of melanoma spread is the lymph nodes draining the area of skin where the melanoma was detected. Sometimes, lymph node involvement is obvious because an enlarged lymph node can be felt. In this case, removal of all the lymph nodes in that area (called a therapeutic node dissection) is the standard approach. Therapeutic node dissection provides an opportunity for cure the melanoma, particularly when used in conjunction with adjuvant systemic (body-wide) therapy. (See 'Melanoma adjuvant immunotherapy' below.)

In the majority of cases, enlarged lymph nodes are not visible or palpable, and the only way to determine if lymph nodes are affected is to take a sample of the draining lymph node during surgery. This is typically accomplished with a surgical technique known as sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy — The SLN technique is based upon the theory that when tumor cells migrate, they spread to one or a few lymph nodes before involving other nodes. These nodes can be identified by injecting a blue dye or radioactive material around the primary tumor before the wide local excision, and then searching for the node that has absorbed the dye or the radioactive tracer at the time of surgery. This is known as lymphatic mapping.

Lymphatic mapping and SLN biopsy are usually done at the time of the wide local excision. Most procedures are performed in a hospital after the patient is given general anesthesia to induce sleep and prevent pain. The patient may go home later the same day or the following day.

The status of this first draining (sentinel) lymph node accurately predicts the status of the remaining regional lymph nodes. Because only one lymph node is removed (or at most, a few), the risk of this procedure is lower and the accuracy is greater than a full lymph node dissection. After the lymph node is removed, it is then examined under a microscope to determine if melanoma cells are present.

The success of SLN biopsy is dependent upon the skill of the surgeon and the other physicians involved with the procedure. If later tests reveal that the cancer has spread to the SLN, a second procedure, termed a completion lymph node dissection, is performed to remove the remaining lymph nodes in that area (or "basin"). If the SLN is negative for tumor involvement, further lymph node dissection is usually not performed since the likelihood of finding tumor involvement is less than 5 percent.

When is SLN biopsy recommended? — SLN biopsy has become the standard technique for assessing the regional lymph nodes and is recommended for staging of most people with newly diagnosed melanomas. However, people whose melanomas are less than 0.75 mm in thickness (thin melanomas without ulceration and <1 mitosis/mm2) may not require SLN since the likelihood of tumor spread to the regional lymph nodes is less than 5 percent.


Once the staging work-up is complete, a pathologic disease stage between I and IV is assigned. A higher stage indicates more extensive disease.

Stage I or IIA disease – The tumor is less than 4 millimeters (0.16 inches) thick without ulceration or less than 2 millimeters (0.08 inches) thick if ulceration is present. This is considered to be localized disease. Surgery alone is curative in 70 to 90 percent of cases, meaning the cancer is completely removed and not likely to return.

Stage IIB or IIC disease – The tumor is 2.1 to 4 millimeters (0.08 to 0.16 inches) thick with ulceration, or 4 or more millimeters (0.16 inches) thick with or without ulceration. This is considered to be localized disease. Patients are at a higher risk of recurrence, even after the tumor has been completely surgically removed. Adjuvant (additional) therapy is often recommended, especially for tumors that are 4 or more millimeters (0.16 inches) thick. (See 'Melanoma adjuvant immunotherapy' below.)

Stage III disease – There is evidence of melanoma spread in the lymphatic channels surrounding the tumor (called satellites) or nearby lymph nodes. The tumor may be any thickness. Adjuvant therapy is strongly recommended. (See 'Melanoma adjuvant immunotherapy' below.)

Stage IV disease – The melanoma has metastasized to more distant locations in the body, which may or may not include the lymph nodes. The tumor may be any thickness. This is referred to as advanced disease. A full discussion of the treatment of advanced melanoma is available separately. (See "Patient education: Melanoma treatment; advanced or metastatic melanoma (Beyond the Basics)".).

Based upon the pathologic disease stage, the optimal treatment is chosen. For patients with localized disease who have no evidence of distant metastases, the goals of treatment are:

Complete surgical removal of the primary melanoma

Evaluation of regional lymph nodes for evidence of tumor involvement

Preventing further spread or disease recurrence

In patients with involved sentinel lymph nodes following the staging, the standard of care is to completely remove all the remaining regional lymph nodes with a completion lymphadenectomy. The benefit of this standard procedure has been questioned, especially for patients with thin primary melanomas and very few tumor cells in their sentinel lymph node biopsy. Consequently, there is an ongoing international trial comparing completion lymph node biopsy to regional ultrasound evaluation of the lymph node basin on a scheduled basis. The study is determining whether survival is better with completion lymph node dissection.


The term "adjuvant therapy" refers to any additional anticancer treatment that is given after a cancer is surgically removed. The objective of adjuvant treatment is to stop or slow the growth of any remaining cancer cells that were not removed during surgery. "Immunotherapy" refers to drugs that work with your immune system to do this.

Both interferon alfa (IFNa) and ipilimumab are agents that enhance the body's immune reaction against melanoma. Both have been used as adjuvant therapy for patients with melanoma who are at high risk for recurrence. Clinical trials that compare adjuvant therapy with interferon alfa versus ipilimumab are currently underway.

The choice of one agent or another should consider the specific side effects associated with each drug. While interferon alfa has been well studied in patients with melanoma, ipilimumab was more recently approved for this use. Additional information from the ipilimumab clinical trials, including its impact on overall survival as well as its effectiveness relative to IFNa, are eagerly anticipated and will enhance our understanding of the role of each of the two agents.

Interferon alfa — Treatment with IFNa (brand name: Intron A) has been demonstrated to improve survival compared with no adjuvant therapy when given on a high-dose schedule [1]. This approach includes giving a high intravenous (IV) dose five days a week for four weeks. This is then followed by subcutaneous injections (injections under the skin) at a lower dose three times per week for an additional 11 months.

IFNa can have potentially toxic side effects, although the type and severity of side effects vary from one person to another. Side effects may include flu-like symptoms (low-grade fever, muscle and joint aches, chills, fatigue), depression, a drop in the number of white blood cells, and temporary liver enzyme abnormalities. The majority of these effects can be managed with supportive care and/or a temporarily reduced dose of IFNa. Most reactions are completely reversible when treatment is stopped.

Pegylated interferon — Pegylated interferon (PEG-interferon; sample brand name: Peg-Intron) is a longer acting interferon preparation that can be given once a week for up to five years. It has been shown to delay disease recurrence relative to observation in patients with stage III disease but has not shown a significant impact on overall survival. PEG-interferon is frequently better tolerated than the standard IFNa regimen, with fewer flu-like symptoms.

Ipilimumab — Ipilimumab (brand name: Yervoy) significantly decreased the risk of recurrence compared with placebo in a large clinical trial of patients with high-risk melanoma [2]. However, additional long-term follow-up from this trial will be required in order to assess the impact on survival. Ipilimumab is given intravenously once every three weeks for four doses and then every 12 weeks for up to three years.

Ipilimumab can cause the immune system to attack other parts of the body in addition to the cancer cells; this has led to a wide range of serious and potentially fatal side effects. The most common of these include skin reactions, diarrhea and colitis, liver toxicity, and endocrine abnormalities.


Clinician monitoring — Because melanoma can recur in the same location or in new sites, routine follow-up and monitoring are very important. Seeing a healthcare provider regularly is the most important aspect of follow-up since most recurrences are discovered when the patient is seen and examined at regular intervals after treatment.

Blood tests and a chest X-ray may be performed at periodic intervals to evaluate the possibility of distant spread of melanoma. Other imaging studies (eg, computed tomography [CT] or positron emission tomography [PET] scans) are usually recommended only if new symptoms, physical exam, blood test, or chest X-ray abnormalities develop.

Self-examination — In addition to visits with a healthcare provider, monthly self-examination is recommended to identify any new or changing skin lesions. If you notice a new or changing mole or lesion, contact a healthcare provider to determine if further evaluation is needed.

To perform self-examination, stand in an area that is brightly lit. Use a hand-held mirror to examine your face, including the nose, lips, mouth, and ears. Face away from a full-length mirror and hold up the hand-held mirror to see the back of your head, ears, and neck.

Examine both sides of your hands and arms, including between the fingers and under the fingernails. Use the full-length mirror to examine the undersides and back of your arms and armpits. Examine your neck, chest, and abdomen. Women should lift the breasts to examine underneath.

Using both mirrors, examine your shoulders, upper back, and upper arms. Scan your lower back, buttocks (including between the buttocks), and the backs of both legs.

Sit down and rest one foot on a chair. Examine your legs, including the ankles, the top and bottom of the feet, between the toes, and under the toenails. Switch legs and repeat. Use a hand-held mirror to examine your genitals.

Prevention of future melanoma — People who have had melanoma are at increased risk of developing melanoma again. Ways to reduce exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight are discussed separately. (See "Patient education: Sunburn prevention (Beyond the Basics)".)


Progress in treating cancer requires that better treatments be identified through clinical trials, which are conducted all over the world. A clinical trial is a carefully controlled way to study the effectiveness of new treatments or new combinations of known therapies. Ask for more information about clinical trials, or read about clinical trials at:



Videos addressing common questions about clinical trials are available from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (http://www.cancer.net/pre-act).


Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient education: Melanoma skin cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Sunburn (The Basics)
Patient education: Seborrheic keratosis (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient education: Melanoma treatment; advanced or metastatic melanoma (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Sunburn prevention (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Adjuvant immunotherapy for melanoma
Approach to the patient with macular skin lesions
Evaluation and treatment of regional lymph nodes in melanoma
Imaging studies in melanoma
Initial surgical management of melanoma of the skin and unusual sites
Primary prevention of melanoma
Risk factors for the development of melanoma
Screening and early detection of melanoma
Staging work-up and surveillance after treatment of melanoma

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

National Cancer Institute


American Society of Clinical Oncology


National Comprehensive Cancer Network


American Cancer Society


National Library of Medicine


The Melanoma Center, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute


Skin Cancer Foundation


Melanoma Research Foundation


Literature review current through: Feb 2017. | This topic last updated: Mon Apr 04 00:00:00 GMT+00:00 2016.
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