A diagnosis of skin cancer will mean you have to make a number of different decisions about treatment. Remember, everyone is different and your doctor will focus on the best treatment options to suit you. Try to gather as much information as possible about your treatment options and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You need good information to make the best decisions for you and your health.
There are a number of treatments available for skin cancer, including:
Your treatment options will vary depending on the size and location of the tumour, as well as your overall health. Remember, everyone is different and your doctor will focus on the best treatment options to suit you.
Treatment for skin cancer usually involves surgery to remove the tumour, but some people may also require radiation therapy, chemotherapy and/or targeted therapies.
Most melanomas that are found early are treated by surgery alone. If the melanoma is small, then this can simply be done under local anaesthetic at a doctor’s clinic but larger melanomas may be removed under general anaesthetic.
In most cases the skin can just be stitched back together and will heal as a straight scar. Those with larger melanomas may require a skin graft in which a piece of skin is taken from elsewhere on the body and used to cover the wound.
Sometimes, your doctor may recommend that you have further treatment after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
Radiation therapy is sometimes used in people with skin cancer.
Radiation therapy uses high energy x-ray beams to kill the cancer cells and is delivered by a special machine which directs the x-ray beams to the exact site of the melanoma. Treatment is generally given every day for a period of weeks.
As with any treatment, you may experience side-effects during radiation therapy. Side-effects may affect you no matter which area of the body you’re having radiotherapy to. Some side-effects are more common than others. These can include:
- Skin irritation
- Tiredness (fatigue)
- Feeling sick (nausea or vomiting)
- Problems with eating and drinking
- Flu-like symptoms
- Hair loss
If you experience any side-effects during radiation treatment, tell your medical team. They are in the best position to help you manage these.
Surgery for skin cancer may be followed by chemotherapy. Chemotherapy medicines work to destroy the cancer cells or control their growth.
When you have chemotherapy, you are usually given a combination of two or more medicines intravenously (through the vein).
Chemotherapy is most commonly given every three to four weeks over a period of several months.
Chemotherapy kills rapidly growing cells like cancer cells, but can also kill other healthy cells that grow quickly, such as those in the bone marrow, digestive tract and hair follicles. Chemotherapy treatment can lead to a number of side-effects, including:
- Feeling sick (nausea and vomiting)
- Hair loss
- Tiredness (fatigue)
- Increased risk of infection.
If you’re getting side-effects as a result of chemotherapy, speak to your medical team about how best to manage these. There are medicines that can be used to effectively control or minimise side-effects.
A more recent development in the treatment of melanoma is the increasing number of immunotherapies that have become available.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that boosts your body’s own immune system and the body’s normal cells to attack cancer cells. Examples of immunotherapy include Keytruda® (pembrolizumab), a registered product of MSD New Zealand, and Yervoy® (ipilimumab) Opdivo (nivolumab), a registered product of BMS, New Zealand.
An older immunotherapy is interferon. Interferon may also be used in some patients with advanced melanoma.
Advances in cancer treatment have seen the development of targeted therapies. These are medicines that specifically identify and attack cancer cells without damaging normal cells. They can be an effective form of treatment for many cancers.
Certain types of Skin Cancer can be treated with targeted therapies including: