If melanoma has spread to other organs (metastasis), such as the lungs or brain, the disease is classified as stage four. A stage four melanoma is not always curable, but there are a number of treatments that can slow the progression of the disease. Examples include radiotherapy, chemotherapy, vaccines and drug treatments. New drugs, such as the recently FDA approved YERVOY, may also be an option for patients with stage four skin cancer.
How Is Stage Four Melanoma Treated?
Radiotherapy: calculated doses of radiation kill the cancerous cells while minimizing the effect on the surrounding healthy tissue. Radiotherapy is often performed daily in 15 minute sessions. There are some common side effects to radiotherapy, including nausea, hair loss and fatigue, although these are often treated separately with additional medication.
Chemotherapy: anti-cancer drugs are injected via an IV drip or taken as a pill. Chemotherapy sessions are relatively quick and usually don’t require an overnight stay in hospital. Side effects of chemotherapy can be severe, including nausea, infections and stomatitis. As with radiotherapy, these can often be controlled or eliminated with other drugs.
There are a variety of other potential treatments for stage 4 skin cancer. These include the injection of antibodies into the blood, which forces the body’s natural immune response to attack the cancer, and immunotherapy.
What Are Some New Treatments For Skin Cancer?
An exciting new possible treatment for melanoma is the possible development of a vaccine. The vaccine could be used in patients with advanced skin cancer to stimulate the body’s immune system to identify the melanoma as a threat. While vaccines may potentially be an effective treatment for stage 4 skin cancer, their efficacy hasn’t been fully proven in clinical trials.
YERVOY has recently been approved as a treatment for an unresectable melanoma. Patients who took YERVOY and an experimental drug in clinical trials lived longer on average than patients who just took the experimental drug. Those patient had a median increase in survival rate around 4 months. Possible side effects include a rash, itching, and diarrhea.