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Treating melanoma

If a growth or mole looks like a melanoma, the doctor will take a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. This entails removing either a sample of tissue or else the entire growth and some surrounding skin, and examining the tissue under a microscope to determine whether it's cancer. Depending on how deep a melanoma is, additional tissue may have to be removed. In some cases, lymph nodes may be removed, too. A procedure called sentinel node biopsy can show whether the lymph node nearest the tumor contains any cancer cells. If it does, surgery to remove additional nodes right away can improve survival.

In addition to surgery, treatments for melanoma include immunotherapy (which strengthens the immune system against the cancer), chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Newer, so-called targeted treatments include drugs that target specific genetic changes seem in people with certain forms of melanoma. For example, about half of melanomas have genetic changes (mutations) in a gene called BRAF, which signals melanoma cells to grow and divide quickly. Drugs that inhibit BRAF, such as vemurafenib (Zelboraf ) and dabrafenib (Tafinlar), and related proteins are now available.

About 84% of people diagnosed with melanoma of the skin have stage I or localized melanoma, meaning the disease has not spread beyond its original site. For them, five-year survival rate is about 98%. But if the cancer spreads to a nearby site, the rate drops to between 62% and 76%. As with most other forms of cancer, if the tumor has spread to distant organs, overall survival is lower, about 16%.

For more on melanoma and other skin conditions, buy Skin Care and Repair, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.