The American Cancer Society estimates that doctors will diagnose more than 96,000 new cases of melanoma in 2019. While not as common as other forms of skin cancer, melanoma is more aggressive, and if it’s not diagnosed and treated early, it can spread rapidly to other organs. Within the last 10 years, however, researchers have developed new treatments that are giving patients hope.

“Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocyte, and the melanocyte is a cell in the body that produces melanin or the pigment that changes when it tans,” says Dr. Keith Wells, medical oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute’s clinic in Corvallis.

While skin cancer is typically associated with changes on the skin, approximately 15 percent of patients diagnosed with melanoma show no visible skin changes; the cancer is often spotted after it spreads to the lymph nodes and patients noticed a bump in their neck or groin area. When melanoma spreads to other parts of the body, often the liver, lung or brain, it’s referred to as metastatic melanoma, or stage IV melanoma.

“Melanoma was one of the cancers that was a death sentence 10-15 years ago,” says Dr. Wells. Since 2011, there’s been a lot of different treatments for melanoma.”

Two developments in treatment include:

  • Targeted therapy, which helps stop cancer from growing and spreading. It works by targeting specific genes or proteins found in cancer cells or in cells related to cancer growth, like blood vessel cells. Doctors often use targeted therapy in combination with chemotherapy and other treatments.
  • Immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. Immunotherapy uses substances made by the body or in a laboratory to improve or restore immune system function, which enables the immune system to identify cancer cells and kill them. Newer drugs—such as pembrolizumab (Keytruda), nivolumab (Opdivo), and ipilimumab (Yervoy)—block proteins that normally suppress the T-cell immune response against melanoma cells. These drugs have been shown to help some people live longer with advanced melanomas.

Dr. Wells says these treatments do not work for everyone, but roughly 50-60% of patients experience a long-term benefit.

“Historically, when patients were diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, they had weeks to months to live. And now, with these therapies, we’re seeing patients live many years. It’s wonderful.”

Some of the drugs originally approved by the FDA to treat melanoma are now being used to treat other types of cancers, including lung and liver cancer and some types of blood cancers. Learn more here.