Cancer. It is such a scary word. Just the mention of it can send your head swimming. When you are first diagnosed with melanoma, your reaction might be "Not me." You probably have so many questions flying around your head and feel as if you can't think straight. "What is going to happen?" you wonder, "What should I do?"
Your doctor will spend time with you and try to answer all of your questions. This is often a confusing time and you may not yet know what questions to ask or leave the office and forget much of what your doctor has told you. It is normal to be confused and scared; it might be a good idea to set up a second appointment to talk about the cancer more in detail - many people elect to bring along a spouse, friend or relative to take notes or help remember what was said. At this appointment, bring along a list of questions you have, but remember, if you forget to ask something, you can call your doctor or request another appointment. Your doctor understands that this is difficult emotionally and will do his or her best to explain your cancer and your treatment options.
Frequently, the after your doctor has diagnosed melanoma he will request further testing. This testing is done to find out the stage of the cancer, the size of the tumor, how fast or slow it is growing and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.
Once your doctor has gathered all of this information, he may refer you to another specialist. Melanoma is often treated by a team of doctors including dermatologists, oncologists and general surgeons. You may not need all of these doctors - your doctor will discuss who you should see and what each doctor will be contributing to your overall treatment. All of your doctors will work together to make sure you receive the best care.
Creating a Treatment Plan
There is not "one course of treatment" that works for all melanomas. Treatment depends on the stage of cancer and the other factors your doctor has tested for. Your doctor will discuss all of the treatment options, including
- Radiation therapy
- Biologic therapy
- Targeted therapy
Your doctor might also tell you about any clinical trials available that are testing new types of treatments. A clinical trial helps either improve a current treatment (by increasing the effectiveness or reducing side effects) or test a new treatment.
Once your doctor has explained all of the different treatments, he will recommend what he feels is best for you. He should also tell you why he feels this treatment is the most appropriate. You should ask questions so you understand what the treatment consists of and what the potential side effects are.
You want to find out how this treatment is going to affect your daily life, such as working, so you can plan in advance and prepare for any time off that is needed.
During the course of your treatment, your doctor may order some of the same tests he did to find out more about your cancer. This is often called re-staging and is done to see if the treatment is working, if it should be stops or continued or if a change in treatment is needed.
Follow Up Treatment
Once your treatment has ended, your doctor will probably continue these tests on a regular basis to make sure the cancer has not recurred. Even though your initial treatment has ended, it is important to follow through with all your doctor's appointments. Again, there is no set schedule of follow-up visits, your doctor will determine how soon you should be seen and how often you should have a follow-up visit.
Depending on the type of treatment you received, it may be a while, weeks or months, until you feel your energy return and you are able to get back to the same lifestyle you had before treatment. Be patient with yourself and give yourself time to recuperate.
Melanoma can recur in the same spot or can show up in different parts of the body. You should be vigilant in performing self-checks and notifying your doctor if you see any new growths, bumps or spots. It is also important to continue to use sunscreen to protect your skin from exposure to the sun.
From the time you first hear the word cancer until long after treatment ends, you need support from family and friends. You may also want to join a support group, to talk to others who are going through similar experiences. Many cancer centers have support groups in place but if you can't find one near you, there are support groups online as well. There will be days when you feel alone, afraid, or discouraged. Sometimes it feels as if those who haven't gone through cancer treatment can't possibly understand what you are going through and it helps to have a support system in place for emotional support.
"Melanoma Treatment Option Overview," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, National Cancer Institute
"Your Feelings: Learning You Have Cancer," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, National Cancer Institute
"You've Been Diagnosed with Cancer: What Happens Next?" 2005, Staff Writer, CNN Health