Although it accounts for only two percent of all skin cancer cases, melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. The cancer usually starts as a dark mole or skin lesion. If it is not detected at an early stage, melanoma can spread.
When the cancer moves beyond the skin to other parts of the body, it is known as advanced or metastatic melanoma. Once melanoma has progressed to this stage, it is difficult to cure.
Advanced melanoma can affect the lymph nodes or other internal organs and tissue. Common places for melanoma to spread include the lungs, liver, brain and bone.
Common Treatments for Advanced Melanoma
Treatment for advanced melanoma depends upon the size and location of the tumor. A combination of therapies is often used to treat advanced melanoma. Possible treatments include:
- Immunotherapy: Medications activate the immune response to attack and kill cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy: Proteins responsible for abnormal cell growth are disabled using specialized therapies.
- Chemotherapy: Cancer cell growth is slowed or stopped with drugs.
New Immunotherapy Drug May Represent Breakthrough
The immune system is a complex part of human biology, and many of its functions have remained a mystery. In recent years, researchers have worked to gain a better understanding of the immune system. As a result, they have been able to unlock more of its innate healing potential. Advances in immunotherapy represent some of the more recent discoveries about cancer and how to fight it.
The immune system is self-regulating. Whether fighting a foreign antigen or abnormal cell growth, the immune system can shut itself off. The mechanisms that signal when to turn off the immune response are known as immune checkpoint receptors. Cancerous cells can communicate with these receptors to stop the immune response, which allows tumors to grow.
Overriding the Off Switch
There are several ways to boost the immune response. Some of the newest forms of immunotherapy are checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs override the immune system’s ‘off switch’. One such medication is nivolumab (Opdivo), which was recently approved by the FDA Opdivo for treatment of advanced melanoma.
Nivolumab can now be used in people with previously untreated, advanced melanoma, and ongoing research shows that the new drug may offer promising results. Nivolumab performed better than chemotherapy in clinical trials.
Prevention is the Leading Cure
Diagnosed cases of melanoma increase each year. Although new treatments like nivolumab offer hope to people with advanced melanoma, the best cure is prevention. There are a number of steps that can minimize risk of skin cancer:
- Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 year-round.
- Try to avoid sun exposure between 10 am and 2 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest.
- When outside, it’s important to cover the arms, legs and face. Wear protective clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses that block UV radiation.
- Avoid all tanning beds and lamps. Use of these greatly increases risk of skin cancer.
Finally, check regularly to monitor for skin changes or new growths. Pay special attention to any moles, freckles or birthmarks. Skin cancer can also develop on the soles of the feet, in between toes, and in the genital area. If you notice any changes or unusual skin markings, follow up with a dermatologist.