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Melanoma: Chemotherapy

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy uses anticancer medicines to kill cancer cells. The medicines are made to attack and kill cancer cells that grow quickly.

Some normal cells also grow quickly. Because of this, chemotherapy can also harm those cells. This can cause side effects.

How is chemotherapy given for melanoma?

Chemotherapy medicine is most often given through an IV. It may also be taken by mouth as a pill, or as an injection. The treatment may be done as an outpatient visit to a hospital, and you go home the same day. Or it may be at your doctor’s office, a chemotherapy clinic, or at home. In some cases, you may stay in the hospital during treatment.

You get chemotherapy in cycles over a period of time. That means you may take the medicine for a set amount of time and then you have a rest period. Each period of treatment and rest is one cycle. You may have several cycles. Having treatment in cycles helps by:

  • Killing more cancer cells. The medicine can kill more cancer cells over time, because cells aren't all dividing at the same time. Cycles allow the medicine to fight more cells.

  • Giving your body a rest. Treatment is hard on other cells of the body that divide quickly. This includes cells in the lining of the mouth and stomach. This causes side effects, such as sores and nausea. Between cycles, your body can get a rest from the chemotherapy.

  • Giving your mind a rest. Having chemotherapy can be stressful. Taking breaks between cycles can let you get an emotional break between treatments.

What types of medicines are used to treat melanoma?

The chemotherapy medicines most often used for melanoma include:

  • Nab-paclitaxel

  • Carmustine

  • Dacarbazine

  • Carboplatin

  • Cisplatin

  • Paclitaxel

  • Temozolomide

  • Vinblastine

For melanoma, you may get more than one medicine. This is called combination therapy. This may lower the chance that the cancer will become resistant to one medicine. Combination therapy can include several days of treatment given every 3 to 4 weeks. The schedule varies for each person. Which medicines you take and how often you take them depend on many factors, such as your general health.

If you are having chemotherapy, you may have it along with immunotherapy medicine. This is sometimes called biochemotherapy.

What are common side effects of chemotherapy?

Side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type and amount of medicines you’re taking. They vary from person to person.

Some common temporary side effects from chemotherapy include:

  • Loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting

  • Infections from low white blood cell counts

  • Easy bruising or bleeding from low blood platelet counts

  • Fatigue from low red blood cell counts

  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet (peripheral neuropathy)

  • Constipation or diarrhea

  • Hair loss

  • Mouth sores 

  • Skin changes

Most of side effects will go away or get better between treatments and a few weeks after treatment ends. You may also be able to help control some of these side effects. Tell your healthcare providers about any side effects you have. They can help you cope with the side effects.

A more serious possible side effect of some chemotherapy medicines is organ damage. This can include damage to the kidneys, liver, testicles, ovaries, brain, heart, or lungs. You may have blood tests while you’re getting chemotherapy. This is to make sure you aren’t having harmful reactions to the medicine.

Chemotherapy through isolated limb perfusion (ILP)

If the melanoma is on a leg or arm, you may also get the medicine by isolated limb perfusion (ILP). This procedure may shrink the tumor and help prevent amputation. It may also relieve symptoms, such as pain and swelling.

How ILP is done

ILP combines surgery and medicine. First the surgeon temporarily stops the blood circulation to the affected arm or leg. Keeping the blood supply in the limb stops high doses of chemotherapy medicine from traveling around the body and affecting other organs.

Then 2 small tubes called catheters are put into the limb. One is put in an artery and one is put in a vein. Blood from the vein goes into a machine called a pump-oxygenator. This machine is like the one used in heart bypass surgery. There the blood is mixed with oxygen and chemotherapy medicine. Melphalan is the most common medicine used for this. The blood is then sent to the limb through the artery. 

Chemotherapy medicine moves through the limb for up to 90 minutes. During this time, blankets keep the limb warm. The medicines are also warmed as they move through the pump-oxygenator. This may help the chemotherapy work better. At the end of the procedure, the medicines are flushed out of the limb. Normal circulation is resumed. The entire procedure takes about 2 to 3 hours.

How ILP may help

The main advantage of ILP is that it lets high doses of chemotherapy medicine be given to the affected limb. But it spares the rest of the body from the medicine’s side effects. Side effects are mostly limited to the limb, such as limb swelling.

But ILP also has a few drawbacks. For one, it is major surgery. Also it does not affect any cancer that has spread beyond the limb. And while this procedure can often shrink tumors, it may not improve long-term survival better than other treatments.

Doctors continue to look for ways to improve ILP. One method that is being tested is called isolated limb infusion (ILI). In ILI, a high dose of chemotherapy medicine is injected into an artery or vein of the affected limb while the blood is temporarily stopped with a tourniquet. Healthcare providers think this type of infusion may kill more cancer cells and cause less damage to healthy tissue. This procedure is still being researched.

Working with your healthcare provider

It's important to know which medicines you're taking. Write your medicines down, and ask your healthcare team how they work and what side effects they might have.

Talk with your healthcare providers about what signs to look for and when to call them. For example, chemotherapy can make you more likely to get infections.  Make sure you know what number to call with questions. Is there a different number for evenings and weekends?

 It may be helpful to keep a diary of your side effects. Write down physical, thinking, and emotional changes. A written list will make it easier for you to remember your questions when you go to your appointments. It will also make it easier for you to work with your healthcare team to make a plan to manage your side effects.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara M., RN, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 12/20/2014
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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