Chemotherapy for melanoma skin cancer

Chemotherapy uses anticancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It is sometimes used to treat melanoma skin cancer. Your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the drugs, doses and schedules of chemotherapy. You may also receive other treatments.

Chemotherapy is given for different reasons. You may have chemotherapy to:

  • stop or control the growth and spread of cancer cells
  • shrink a tumour
  • relieve pain or control the symptoms of advanced melanoma skin cancer (called palliative chemotherapy)

Chemotherapy may be given as a systemic therapy or a regional therapy.

Systemic chemotherapy

Systemic chemotherapy is when the drugs travel through the blood to reach and destroy cancer cells all over the body, including those that may have broken away from the primary tumour on the skin. It is mainly used to help shrink and control the growth of metastatic melanoma skin cancer.

The following are chemotherapy drugs that may be used alone or in combination to treat melanoma skin cancer:

  • dacarbazine (DTIC) – this is the most common drug used
  • temozolomide (Temodal)
  • carboplatin (Paraplatin, Paraplatin AQ)
  • paclitaxel (Taxol)
  • cisplatin (Platinol AQ)
  • vinblastine (Velbe)

Most of these chemotherapy drugs are given through a needle into a vein (intravenously), except temozolomide, which is given by mouth (orally). How often and how long chemotherapy is given depends on the type of drug used, the dose and if other treatments are used. It may be combined with immunotherapy drugs (sometimes called biochemotherapy), such as interferon alfa-2b (Intron A) or interleukin-2 (aldesleukin, Proleukin). For melanoma skin cancer, there are no standard drugs used or length of time systemic chemotherapy is given.

Regional chemotherapy

In regional chemotherapy, the drug is given directly to a specific area of the body. It is rarely given, but may be used for locally recurrent melanoma skin cancer that is only in one arm or leg. It can be done when there are many large tumours that can’t be removed with surgery.

The most common regional chemotherapy drug used is melphalan (Alkeran). Sometimes it is combined with an immunotherapy drug.

Regional chemotherapy is done in a hospital under general anesthesia (you will be unconscious), and you will need to stay in the hospital for a few days. It is only available at special cancer centres.

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for melanoma skin cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Chemotherapy may cause side effects because it can damage healthy cells as it kills cancer cells. If you develop side effects, they can happen any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after chemotherapy. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years after chemotherapy. Most side effects go away on their own or can be treated, but some side effects may last a long time or become permanent.

Side effects of chemotherapy will depend mainly on the type of drug, the dose, how it’s given and your overall health.

Some common side effects of systemic chemotherapy drugs used for melanoma skin cancer are:

Regional chemotherapy may cause side effects such as:

  • soreness or pain where the tubes were placed
  • swelling in the arm or leg
  • redness and pain of the skin
  • hair loss on the arm or leg
  • blood clots

Tell your healthcare team if you have these side effects or others you think might be from chemotherapy. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Information about specific cancer drugs

Details on specific drugs change regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.

Questions to ask about chemotherapy

Find out more about chemotherapy and side effects of chemotherapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about chemotherapy.

Expert review and references

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

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