- How is melanoma skin cancer treated?
- Types of surgery for melanoma skin cancer
- Chemotherapy for melanoma skin cancer
- Immunotherapy for melanoma skin cancer
- Targeted therapy for melanoma skin cancer
- Radiation therapy for melanoma skin cancer
- Clinical trials for melanoma skin cancer
- Complementary and alternative therapies for melanoma skin cancer
Immunotherapy for melanoma skin cancer
Immunotherapy helps boost a person’s immune system to better attack the cancer. There are many types of immunotherapy used for people with advanced melanoma.
Ipilimumab for advanced melanoma
Ipilimumab (Yervoy) is a man-made version of an immune system protein (a monoclonal antibody). It is thought to boost the immune response against melanoma cells in the body. This drug works by basically removing the “brakes” on the body’s immune system.
This drug is given as an IV (intravenous) infusion in patients with melanomas that can’t be removed by surgery or that have spread to other parts of the body. Doctors are now looking at its use for earlier stage melanomas as well.
In some cases, this drug can cause the immune system to attack other parts of the body, which can cause serious problems. If problems do arise, treatment may need to be stopped and you may get high doses of corticosteroids to suppress your immune system.
Cytokines for advanced melanoma
Cytokines are proteins in the body that “turn on” the immune system. Man-made versions of cytokines, such as interferon-alpha and interleukin-2 (IL-2), are sometimes used in patients with melanoma. They are given as intravenous (IV) infusions or as injections under the skin. They can help shrink advanced melanomas in some patients.
Side effects may include flu-like symptoms like fever, chills, aches, and severe tiredness. Interleukin-2 in high doses can cause fluid to build up in the body so that the person swells up and can feel quite sick.
Interferon-alpha as adjuvant therapy
Patients with thicker melanomas often have cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body. Even after it looks as if all the cancer has been removed, some of these cells may remain. Interferon-alpha can be used as an added (adjuvant) therapy after surgery to try to prevent these cells from spreading and growing. This treatment might help keep the melanoma from coming back quickly. But it is not yet clear if adjuvant interferon improves survival.
In order to work, though, high doses of interferon must be used. Many patients can’t take the side effects of these high doses. Side effects may be fever, chills, aches, severe tiredness, and effects on the heart and liver. Patients having this treatment should be closely watched by a cancer doctor who has experience with this treatment.
BCG (Bacille Calmette-Guerin) vaccine
BCG is a germ related to the one that causes tuberculosis (TB). Unlike its bacterial “cousin,” BCG does not cause serious disease in humans, but it does “turn on” the immune system. It is sometimes used to help treat stage III melanomas. It is given as a shot (injection) right into the tumors.
Imiquimod (Zyclara) is a drug that, when used as a cream, causes an immune response against skin cancer cells. For very early (stage 0) melanomas in sensitive areas on the face that may be disfigured by surgery, some doctors may use imiquimod. The cream is used anywhere from once a day to 2 times a week for around 3 months. Some people may have serious skin reactions to this drug. Not all doctors agree on whether it should be used for melanoma. Imiquimod is not used for more advanced melanomas.
Some newer types of immunotherapy have shown promise in treating melanoma in early studies. At this time they are available only through clinical trials (see “What’s new in research and treatment of melanoma skin cancer?”).
Last Medical Review: 09/26/2012
Last Revised: 01/17/2013