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Malignant melanoma is a serious type of skin cancer that may be cured by surgery in the early stage of the disease. However, patients may need additional (adjuvant) therapy such as interferon treatment for the late stages to improve survival.

Malignant melanoma is a serious type of skin cancer that may spread to other parts of the body. Aside from standard treatment which includes surgery and chemotherapy for advanced disease, interferon may be used as adjuvant therapy to improve a patient's chances for survival.

What is Malignant Melanoma?

Malignant Melanoma or melanoma is a condition where there is an abnormal growth and multiplication of the pigment cells (melanocytes) in the skin. This skin cancer may spread to adjacent lymph nodes and distant organs as well in its advanced stage. In the US, it is estimated that about 50,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year.

Caucasians and fair-skinned people who are regularly exposed to the damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun are at high risk of developing melanoma. A positive family history of the disease also increases one's likelihood for developing melanoma. Fortunately, since the skin is exposed to one's view, people are often able to notice changes in its color and appearance and early detection is therefore possible. Changes in the size, symmetry, color, shape, and texture of moles and other skin spots should alert one to consult a dermatologist to determine whether these are indicative of skin cancer.

Treatments for Melanoma

When diagnosed and treated early, patients with melanoma can live a normal life span.

Early stages of melanoma may be treated by surgery alone. For early melanomas, surgeons remove the tumor plus one centimeter (or less than half an inch) of normal tissue around the lesion. However, for deeper and more advanced melanoma doctors may perform more extensive surgery, including removal of nearby lymph nodes. For advanced stages, such as when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, additional (adjuvant) treatments like chemotherapy, radiotherapy, targeted therapy, and biological or immunotherapy are often recommended. Of these treatments, recent studies show that immunotherapy using interferons is effective in preventing a relapse of the disease after surgery. Some studies also show that interferon treatment may increase patients' overall survival.

How Interferon Works

Interferons are natural protein substances (cytokines) which the body produces to protect itself when threatened with an invading microbe or abnormal cells such as cancer cells. However, the amount of interferons naturally produced by the body may be inadequate, especially when the tumor cells have multiplied greatly and have affected other organs. The poor general health of the body and its immune system status may also be unable fight cancer.

Immunotherapy involves using medicines that stimulate the patient’s immune system to recognize and fight cancer cells effectively. Immunotherapy with synthetic interferons called interferon-alpha by injection to the skin helps shrink advanced tumors and prevent relapseof the disease.

Studies suggest that interferon alpha also increases the 5-year survival rate of patients with advanced melanoma and to a lesser extent, improves their over-all survival rate.

Interferon treatment may be given in combination with other forms of adjuvant therapy such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Melanoma Center. Melanoma Staging and Treatment. http://www.melanomacenter.org/staging/types/interferon.html
  • Gogas H, Ioannovich J, Dafni U,et al. Prognostic Significance of Autoimmunity during Treatment of Melanoma with Interferon. N Engl J Med 2006
  • 354:709-718. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa053007
  • Mocellin S, Lens MB, Pasquali S, et al. Interferon alpha for the adjuvant treatment of cutaneous melanoma. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD008955. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008955.pub2. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD008955.pub2/abstract
  • Medscape Medical News. Interferon Alfa for Malignant Melanoma: Is It Worth the Toxicities? http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/703078
  • American Cancer Society. Immunotherapy for melanoma skin cancer. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/skincancer-melanoma/detailedguide/melanoma-skin-cancer-treating-immunotherapy
  • Photo by steadyhealth.com
  • Photo courtesy of Jay Cross by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/antoniseb/6399596267/
  • www.cancer.org
  • www.melanomacenter.org
  • www.nejm.org
  • onlinelibrary.wiley.com
  • www.medscape.com

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