What Is Adjuvant Therapy for Melanoma?

This serious form of skin cancer often requires additional treatment.

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In some cases, skin cancer can be one of the simplest types of cancer to treat. Because the skin is an external organ, some skin cancer tumors can be cut out with surgical excision, a minor outpatient procedure that only requires local anesthesia.

Melanoma, however, is different: Unlike other types of skin cancer, melanoma is more likely to spread (metastasize) to nearby lymph nodes and affect other parts of the body. Because of melanoma’s aggressive nature, additional treatments besides surgical excision are often necessary. These secondary treatments are known as adjuvant therapies.

Melanoma is the rarest, yet most dangerous, type of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. It is typically caused by intense UV exposure caused by sunlight or tanning beds, resulting in tumors in the melanocytes (cells that produce pigment) of the skin. Learn more about what melanoma is here.

Criteria for Adjuvant Therapy for Melanoma

To treat melanoma, doctors will assess the spread of the cancer cells. If the melanoma has not appeared to spread to nearby lymph nodes and the melanoma has a low risk of metastasis, surgical excision may be all that’s necessary. This is usually the case for thin melanomas that are caught early.

However, if the melanoma is marked as moderate to high risk of metastasis, adjuvant therapies will be used after surgical excision of the melanoma. To be considered a higher risk of spreading to lymph nodes and other organs, the melanoma will have one or both of the following characteristics:

  • Is thicker than 0.8 millimeters

  • And/or is ulcerated, meaning it is open and bleeding.

If the melanoma has these characteristics, adjuvant therapy will likely be used. The goals of adjuvant therapy for melanoma are to destroy cancer cells that have spread to other organs and to reduce the likelihood for melanoma recurrence.

Types of Adjuvant Therapy for Melanoma

After surgically cutting out the melanoma, doctors turn to standard cancer treatments for adjuvant therapy. The following treatments are the most common adjuvant therapies used to treat metastatic melanoma:

  • A type of immunotherapy known as checkpoint inhibitors, which help the immune system distinguish between cancer cells and normal, healthy cells

  • Targeted therapy, which attacks cells that have specific proteins associated with cancerous gene mutation

Although melanoma can be serious, newer adjuvant therapies are making treatment more effective and may improve prognosis. Learn more about how immunotherapy has revolutionized melanoma treatment here.