What are the treatment options for melanoma?

Photo of a patient at a doctor's appointment
PantherMedia / Monkeybusiness Images

If someone is diagnosed with melanoma, doctors usually first try to remove the tumor surgically. Medication or radiotherapy may also be options, especially if the cancer has reached a more advanced stage.

Melanomas can grow quickly and are more likely than other kinds of skin cancer to spread to other parts of the body (metastasis). The treatment options mainly depend on how advanced the cancer is. It is generally easier to treat cancer that has not yet spread. Once cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it is harder to treat it.

What happens during surgery?

Skin cancer can often be completely removed through surgery, so it is usually the treatment of first choice. In surgery, the doctor not only removes the tumor itself, but also some of the tissue around it. This is done to prevent any cancer cells from staying behind and spreading inside the body. Before the surgery, the affected area of skin is numbed using a local anesthetic.

Smaller wounds often heal without scarring, but bigger operations can leave visible scars. Sometimes a second operation is needed as soon as the removed piece of skin has been examined. For instance, the surgeon may have to remove a larger area of tissue around the tumor.

If the melanoma is small and less than 1 millimeter thick, surgically removing just the melanoma is normally enough. If it's larger, a nearby lymph node – known as the sentinel lymph node – is removed too. If no tumor cells are found in the lymph node, it usually means that the melanoma cancer cells haven't spread to other parts of the body. If the sentinel lymph node has tumor cells in it, the lymph nodes around it are removed too.

When is radiotherapy considered?

Radiotherapy, also known as radiation therapy, aims to destroy cancerous tissue using high-energy radiation. It is mainly used to treat melanoma that is already at a very advanced stage, has already led to metastatic tumors or can't be surgically removed.

What are the medication options?

Medication can be used at different stages of skin cancer. Some are used after surgery to remove larger melanomas, or if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes. The aim is to fight any cancer cells that are still in the body. Other types of medication are only used if there are already several metastatic tumors in the body or if surgery is no longer possible.

The medication options for metastatic melanoma will depend on various factors – for instance, whether medication has already been used and, if so, which medication. Some drugs are only used in combination with another drug, or to treat certain types of melanoma cells.

The medications that can be used to treat melanoma include the following:

  • Targeted therapy: This kind of treatment makes use of the fact that the reason why cancer cells grow uncontrollably is often because certain parts of the cells have changed. The therapy is said to be “targeted” because it uses drugs to specifically switch off those parts of the cells. This is only an option for people with tumors that have these kinds of cell changes. Typical examples of medications used for targeted therapy include BRAF inhibitors such as vemurafenib and dabrafenib. These medications are sometimes combined with the drugs cobimetinib or trametinib too.
  • Immunotherapy: This involves using substances to stimulate the body’s . More specifically, the substances activate cells that are capable of destroying cancer cells. Interferon-alpha, a chemical messenger in the , is one example. Antibodies can also be used in immunotherapy. These can, for instance, attach to cells and activate them so they kill cancer cells. Examples of these drugs that are approved for the treatment of melanoma include ipilimumab, nivolumab and pembrolizumab.
  • Chemotherapy: In chemotherapy, medications known as cytostatic drugs are used with the aim of damaging the cancer cells. The cytostatic drugs used in the treatment of melanoma include dacarbazine, paclitaxel and platinum-based drugs. They are often combined with each other. Cytostatics are usually only used to treat melanoma if all of the other medication options have been exhausted.

Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Wissenschaftlichen Medizinischen Fachgesellschaften (AWMF), Deutsche Krebsgesellschaft (DKG), Deutsche Krebshilfe (DKH). S3-Leitlinie zur Diagnostik, Therapie und Nachsorge des Melanoms. AWMF-Registernr.: 032-024OL. July 2018. (Leitlinienprogramm Onkologie).

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Hämatologie und Medizinische Onkologie (DGHO). Leitlinie Melanom. October 2014.

Devji T, Levine O, Neupane B, Beyene J, Xie F. Systemic Therapy for Previously Untreated Advanced BRAF-Mutated Melanoma: A Systematic Review and Network Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Oncol 2017; 3(3): 366-373.

Johnson MA, Armstrong AP. Treatment of cutaneous melanoma. In: Williams H, Bigby M, Herxheimer A, Naldi L, Rzany B, Dellavalle R et al. (Ed). Edvidence-based dermatology. London: BMJ Books; 2014. S. 231-240.

National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Melanoma: assessment and management. July 2015. (NICE Guidelines; Volume 14).

Pasquali S, Hadjinicolaou AV, Chiarion Sileni V, Rossi CR, Mocellin S. Systemic treatments for metastatic cutaneous melanoma. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2018; (2): CD011123.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas. We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on November 29, 2018
Next planned update: 2021

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.