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What to Know About Chemotherapy for Melanoma

Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs. These drugs kill or slow the growth of the cancer. The benefit of chemotherapy is that it is systemic. That means that the drugs travel through your whole body. They may be able to kill cancer cells that have spread beyond where they started.

Chemotherapy may be a good option if one of these statements is true:

  • You have cancer in one area and need treatment mainly in that area.  In this case, you have regional chemotherapy. It is called isolated limb perfusion if the chemotherapy drugs are sent just to the affected arm or leg.

  • You have stage IV melanoma. In this case, your cancer has likely spread too far to be removed by surgery. You may get chemotherapy alone or in combination with immunotherapy. 

The doctor who treats you with chemotherapy is called a medical oncologist. Using more than one drug is called combination chemotherapy. You may want to know what drugs you’re taking and how you will receive them. You may also want to know their common side effects. Your doctor and chemotherapy nurse will give you the details about your treatment.

The Different Ways You Can Get Chemotherapy

Your doctor has several options for how to give you chemotherapy drugs. The first two are the most common for melanoma.

  • Intravenous (IV) injection or drip. You may receive a shot into a vein. Another way to get the medicine into your vein is by an IV drip. In that case, a bag filled with medicine drips through a tube into your vein. It goes through a needle that’s taped to your skin. 

  • Oral. You swallow these drugs as pills. 

  • Isolated limb perfusion. A high dose of chemotherapy goes into the arm or leg where the cancer is located.

Doctors give you chemotherapy in cycles. That means you take the drugs for a prescribed amount of time. Then you must rest for a prescribed amount of time. Each period of treatment and rest is one cycle. This schedule reduces the damage to healthy cells. And it allows the drugs to kill more cancer cells. It also gives you a break between treatments. Your doctor will decide if you need to take the drugs daily, weekly, every few weeks, or monthly.

You’ll probably get your treatment in an outpatient setting at a hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office. Your healthcare team will watch over you to make sure you don’t have a reaction. Some types of treatment last a while. Take along something that is comforting to you, such as music to listen to. You might also want to stay busy with a deck of cards, book, or crossword puzzle.