Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that more than 1 million people in the U.S. have melanoma – and the rate is increasing even as incidents of other types of cancer decline.
Although the cause of the increase in melanoma cases is unknown, it is believed to be in part related to known factors, such as exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun and from tanning beds, as well as other environmental and genetics factors.
As we work to reduce melanoma rates in the U.S., doctors are also developing new treatments for advanced cases.
In the last decade, we’ve seen an amazing transformation in therapies that have taken melanoma from a purely lethal disease to a more manageable condition, with patients living longer after diagnosis and continuing to do well even after stopping therapy.
The advanced therapies I’m about to describe have replaced the use of traditional therapies for melanoma. They are more effective and have also shown potential in reducing the risk of recurrence in patients when used after melanoma surgery.
3 major advances in melanoma treatment
Immunotherapy has more than tripled melanoma survival rates. In years past, patients with advanced melanoma lived an average of six to 12 months after diagnosis. Immunotherapy has been shown to help extend patients’ lives to many years.
Immunotherapy is the art and science of training a patient’s immune system to fight off cancer cells. We deliver it through an IV, and in the future, we hope to be able to make immunotherapy more directed against the patient’s specific tumor for more precise treatment. Immunotherapy also can reduce the risk of recurrence for patients with melanoma after surgery.
It’s worth noting that immunotherapy can cause serious side effects due to overstimulation of the immune system. Patients should have immunotherapy at an academic medical center because preventing and managing the side effects requires a specialized, team approach.
Ask the Expert: Treating Melanoma
Oncologist Jade Homsi, M.D., brings specialized expertise in melanoma, advanced skin cancer, and sarcoma to the communities of North Texas. In a recent Facebook chat, the Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center physician discussed new and emerging treatment options for skin cancer.
2. Radiation therapy
Radiation has been used over the years to help manage the symptoms of melanoma. But current research is focused on analyzing the synergy between melanoma and radiation therapy, or how the disease and the body react to radiation as a treatment instead of a complementary therapy.
Radiation regimens are typically short-term and targeted, thanks to technology such as stereotactic radiosurgery, including GammaKnife. This approach focuses radiation precisely on the tumor, minimizing damage to healthy tissue and reducing side effects.
UT Southwestern is participating in clinical studies to determine the effectiveness and safety of newer therapies in melanoma. Additionally, in summer 2019, we are entering studies to help us determine whether immunotherapy can help prevent recurrence of squamous cell and Merkel cell skin cancers after surgery.
3. Detection of genetic mutations
In the last 10 years, researchers have discovered several genetic mutations associated with melanoma. Most notable is the BRAF gene mutation, which has been found in approximately 50 percent of patients with melanoma. If present, patients with melanoma could benefit from pill therapy designed to specifically target the mutated gene,
If we can identify more genes and develop screening for at-risk populations, we could one day prevent melanoma before it has a chance to develop.
A team approach to melanoma treatment
Our doctors do not work in a vacuum. We collaborate to create personalized care plans for patients with every kind of cancer, particularly more sinister types such as melanoma.
The UT Southwestern skin cancer team includes every specialist a patient might need from diagnosis through treatment and survivorship, including:
- Skin cancer and head and neck surgeons
- Radiation experts
- Melanoma-focused oncologists
This team meets regularly to discuss the diagnoses, treatment plans, and outcomes of patients with skin cancer. We pool our data and experiences to recommend treatment options, strategies to reduce recurrence, and clinical trials with the patient’s best interests in mind.
A melanoma diagnosis can be scary. The disease is complex, and we are always working to help our patients achieve better outcomes and live longer with skin cancer.