Lowering the Risk of Melanoma Recurrence: Is It Possible?

You’ve been cleared of melanoma. Now how do you keep it from coming back?

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Most types of skin cancer are unlikely to spread (or metastasize) to other parts of the body, and tumors can be removed by a surgical excision relatively easily. However, melanoma is another story. Melanoma is considered the most rare—yet most dangerous—form of skin cancer.

Of the three main types of skin cancer, melanoma is the most likely to metastasize, according to the American Cancer Society. Metastasis increases the chances of cancer recurrence and requires more aggressive treatment, known as adjuvant therapy.

“Adjuvant therapy is what we add after surgery to decrease the chance that that tumor will return, or relapse,” says Jeffrey Weber, MD, PhD, medical oncologist and melanoma researcher at Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health. Today’s adjuvant therapy options for melanoma cut the risk of relapse by about half, according to Dr. Weber.

Despite the oncologist’s best efforts, it’s possible for some cancer cells to survive after adjuvant therapy. If this happens, they can multiply and lead to melanoma recurrence. The chances of this happening are the highest during the first five years after treatment.

This leads to an important question: If any cancer cells survive the treatment for metastatic melanoma, what can survivors do to lower their risk of recurrence?

Although nothing is a guarantee, there are certain lifestyle habits that may be helpful. A healthy lifestyle may be able to lower the risk of recurrence—and if the melanoma does recur, good habits may help improve treatment outcomes and chance of survival. Self-care is a major component. “That means you're managing yourself, your psyche, your well-being, in the best way possible,” says Kaveh Alizadeh, MD, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in New York. “That could be through nutrition, through meditation, through a regular sort of surveillance of yourself as a person.”

The following habits may help lower the risk of melanoma recurrence:

  • Wearing sunscreen every day

  • Avoiding tanning beds

  • Wearing hats and sunglasses

  • Managing weight (being overweight or obese is linked to a higher risk of recurrence)

  • Avoiding alcohol or drinking within moderation

  • Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables

  • Following food safety guidelines to avoid food poisoning

  • Limiting consumption of red meat and heavily processed foods

  • Exercising at least 150 minutes per week

  • Avoiding inactivity

  • And staying hydrated

Although it’s not necessarily a habit for “prevention,” another important habit is doing skin self-checks regularly and attending your follow-up appointments for formal skin checks. This can help relieve anxiety about melanoma recurrence, and if the melanoma does come back, catching it early can help improve treatment outcomes.