Tests and procedures used to diagnose melanoma include:
- Physical exam. Your doctor will ask questions about your health history and examine your skin to look for signs that may indicate melanoma.
Removing a sample of tissue for testing (biopsy). To determine whether a suspicious skin lesion is melanoma, your doctor may recommend removing a sample of skin for testing. The sample is sent to a lab for examination.
What type of biopsy procedure your doctor recommends will depend on your particular situation. Most often doctors recommend removing the entire growth when possible. One common technique, the punch biopsy, is done with a circular blade that's pressed into the skin around the suspicious mole. Another technique, called an excisional biopsy, uses a scalpel to cut away the entire mole and a small margin of healthy tissue around it.
Determining the extent of the melanoma
If you receive a diagnosis of melanoma, the next step is to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. To assign a stage to your melanoma, your doctor will:
Determine the thickness. The thickness of a melanoma is determined by carefully examining the melanoma under a microscope and measuring it with a special tool. The thickness of a melanoma helps doctors decide on a treatment plan. In general, the thicker the tumor, the more serious the disease.
Thinner melanomas may only require surgery to remove the cancer and some normal tissue around it. If the melanoma is thicker, your doctor may recommend additional tests to see if the cancer has spread before determining your treatment options.
See if the melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes. If there's a risk that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, your doctor may recommend a procedure known as a sentinel node biopsy.
During a sentinel node biopsy, a dye is injected in the area where your melanoma was removed. The dye flows to the nearby lymph nodes. The first lymph nodes to take up the dye are removed and tested for cancer cells. If these first lymph nodes (sentinel lymph nodes) are cancer-free, there's a good chance that the melanoma has not spread beyond the area where it was first discovered.
- Look for signs of cancer beyond the skin. For people with more-advanced melanomas, doctors may recommend imaging tests to look for signs that the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. Imaging tests may include X-rays, CT scans and positron emission tomography (PET) scans. These imaging tests generally aren't recommended for smaller melanomas with a lower risk of spreading beyond the skin.
Other factors may go into determining the risk that the cancer may spread (metastasize), including whether the skin over the area has formed an open sore (ulceration) and how many dividing cancer cells (mitoses) are found when looking under a microscope.
Melanoma is staged using the Roman numerals 0 through IV. At stage 0 and stage I, a melanoma is small and has a very successful treatment rate. But the higher the numeral, the lower the chances of a full recovery. By stage IV, the cancer has spread beyond your skin to other organs, such as your lungs or liver.
The best treatment for your melanoma depends on the size and stage of cancer, your overall health, and your personal preferences.
Treatment for small melanomas
Treatment for early-stage melanomas usually includes surgery to remove the melanoma. A very thin melanoma may be removed entirely during the biopsy and require no further treatment. Otherwise, your surgeon will remove the cancer as well as a border of normal skin and a layer of tissue beneath the skin. For people with early-stage melanomas, this may be the only treatment needed.
Treating melanomas that have spread beyond the skin
If melanoma has spread beyond the skin, treatment options may include:
- Surgery to remove affected lymph nodes. If melanoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes, your surgeon may remove the affected nodes. Additional treatments before or after surgery also may be recommended.
Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a drug treatment that helps your immune system to fight cancer. Your body's disease-fighting immune system might not attack cancer because the cancer cells produce proteins that help them hide from the immune system cells. Immunotherapy works by interfering with that process.
Immunotherapy is often recommended after surgery for melanoma that has spread to the lymph nodes or to other areas of the body. When melanoma can't be removed completely with surgery, immunotherapy treatments might be injected directly into the melanoma.
Targeted therapy. Targeted drug treatments focus on specific weaknesses present within cancer cells. By targeting these weaknesses, targeted drug treatments can cause cancer cells to die. Cells from your melanoma may be tested to see if targeted therapy is likely to be effective against your cancer.
For melanoma, targeted therapy might be recommended if the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes or to other areas of your body.
Radiation therapy. This treatment uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays and protons, to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be directed to the lymph nodes if the melanoma has spread there. Radiation therapy can also be used to treat melanomas that can't be removed completely with surgery.
For melanoma that spreads to other areas of the body, radiation therapy can help relieve symptoms.
Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be given intravenously, in pill form or both so that it travels throughout your body.
Chemotherapy can also be given in a vein in your arm or leg in a procedure called isolated limb perfusion. During this procedure, blood in your arm or leg isn't allowed to travel to other areas of your body for a short time so that the chemotherapy drugs travel directly to the area around the melanoma and don't affect other parts of your body.
Coping and support
A cancer diagnosis can change your life forever. Each person finds his or her own way of coping with the emotional and physical changes cancer brings. But when you're first diagnosed with cancer, sometimes it's difficult to know what to do next.
Here are some ideas to help you cope:
- Learn enough about melanoma to make decisions about your care. Ask your doctor about your cancer, including your treatment options and, if you like, your prognosis. As you learn more about cancer, you may become more confident in making treatment decisions.
- Keep friends and family close. Keeping your close relationships strong will help you deal with your cancer. Friends and family can provide the practical support you'll need, such as helping take care of your home if you're in the hospital. And they can serve as emotional support when you feel overwhelmed by cancer.
Find someone to talk with. Find a good listener who is willing to listen to you talk about your hopes and fears. This may be a friend or family member. The concern and understanding of a counselor, medical social worker, clergy member or cancer support group also may be helpful.
Ask your doctor about support groups in your area. Other sources of information include the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.
Preparing for your appointment
Start by seeing your family doctor if you notice any skin changes that concern you. Depending on your situation and the outcome of any tests, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in skin diseases (dermatologist) or to a doctor who specializes in cancer treatment (oncologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot to discuss, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready and know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements you're taking.
- Take a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important, in case time runs out. For melanoma, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- Do I have melanoma?
- How large is my melanoma?
- How deep is my melanoma?
- Has my melanoma spread beyond the area of skin where it was first discovered?
- What additional tests do I need?
- What are my treatment options?
- Can any treatment cure my melanoma?
- What are the potential side effects of each treatment option?
- Is there one treatment you feel is best for me?
- How long can I take to decide on a treatment option?
- Should I see a specialist? What will that cost, and will my insurance cover it?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
- What will determine whether I should plan for a follow-up visit?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.