What happens after treatment for melanoma skin cancer?
For many people with melanoma, treatment can remove or destroy the cancer. Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. You may be relieved to finish treatment, but find it hard not to worry about cancer growing or coming back. (When cancer comes back after treatment, it is called recurrent cancer or a recurrence.) This is a very common concern in people who have had cancer.
It may take a while before your fears lessen. But it may help to know that many cancer survivors have learned to accept this uncertainty and are living full lives. Our document Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence talks more about this.
For others, melanoma may never go away completely. These people may get regular treatment with immunotherapy, targeted therapy, chemotherapy, or other treatments to try to help keep the cancer in check. Learning to live with cancer that does not go away can be difficult and very stressful. It has its own type of uncertainty. Our document When Cancer Doesn’t Go Away talks more about this.
Even if you have completed treatment, your doctors will still want to watch you closely. It’s very important to keep all follow-up appointments. Follow-up is needed to check for signs of the cancer coming back, as well as possible side effects of certain treatments. This is a good time for you to ask your health care team any questions you need answered and to discuss any concerns you have.
Your follow-up schedule should include regular skin and lymph node exams by yourself and by your doctor. How often you need follow-up doctor visits depends on the stage of your melanoma when you were diagnosed and other factors. In addition to the exams, imaging tests such as x-rays or CT scans may be recommended for some patients.
A typical follow-up schedule for people with early-stage melanomas that were removed completely generally calls for physical exams every 6 to 12 months for several years. If these exams are normal, your doctor visits may be stretched to as long as once a year. Your doctor may recommend more frequent exams if you have many moles or atypical moles.
For thicker melanomas or those that had spread beyond the skin, a typical schedule might include physical exams every 3 to 6 months for 2 years, then every 3 to 12 months for the next few years. After that, exams are done at least once a year. Some doctors also recommend imaging tests such as chest x-rays or CT scans every 3 to 12 months for the first several years, especially for people who had more advanced stage disease.
It is also important for melanoma survivors to do regular self-exams of their skin and lymph nodes. Most doctors recommend this at least monthly. You should see your doctor if you find any new lump or change in your skin. You should also report any new symptoms (for example, pain, cough, fatigue, loss of appetite) that do not go away. Melanoma can sometimes come back many years after it was first treated.
People with melanoma that does not go away completely with treatment will have a follow-up schedule that is based on their specific situation.
If melanoma does come back, treatment will depend on where the cancer is, what treatments you’ve had before, and your overall health. For more information on how recurrent cancer is treated, see the section “Treatment of melanoma skin cancer by stage.” For more general information on dealing with a recurrence, you might also want to read When Your Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence.
A person who has had one melanoma is at higher risk for developing other melanomas or other skin cancers. It’s important for people who have had melanoma to examine their skin every month for new skin cancers, and to avoid getting too much sun exposure.
Seeing a new doctor
At some point after your treatment, you may be seeing a new doctor who doesn’t know about your medical history. It’s important to be able to give your new doctor the details of your diagnosis and treatment. Gathering these details during and soon after treatment may be easier than trying to get them at some point in the future. Make sure you have this information handy (and always keep copies for yourself):
- A copy of your pathology report(s) from any biopsies or surgeries
- Copies of imaging tests (CT or MRI scans, etc.), which can usually be stored digitally on a DVD, etc.
- If you had surgery, a copy of your operative report(s)
- If you stayed in the hospital, a copy of the discharge summary that the doctor wrote when you were sent home
- If you had radiation therapy, a copy of your treatment summary
- If you had immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or chemotherapy, a list of your drugs, drug doses, and when you took them
- Contact information for doctors who have treated your cancer
It is also very important to keep health insurance. Tests and doctor visits cost a lot, and even though no one wants to think of their cancer coming back, this could happen.
Last Medical Review: 03/19/2015
Last Revised: 02/01/2016