8 Complementary Treatments for Stage 4 Melanoma

by Krista Bennett DeMaio Health Writer

We know, a stage 4 diagnosis of melanoma can feel scary and overwhelming. If you’re facing one right now, you probably have a team of doctors working on your treatment plan, which may include surgery, targeted treatments, immunotherapy, chemotherapy and radiation. To manage the stress of it all, soften any drug side effects, and promote healing, experts suggest incorporating complementary treatments. Paired with traditional medicine, these practices can help improve your quality of life when dealing with advanced melanoma. (When they’re used in place of conventional medicine, it’s known as an alternative treatment.) Be sure to tell your doc about any complementary treatment you’re using.

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Exercises to Find More Energy

“Exercise has been shown again and again to help with cancer-related fatigue,” says Allison Betof Warner, M.D., Ph.D., a medical oncologist specializing in melanoma at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “We know it also helps with quality of life, anxiety, and depression.” One small study specific to melanoma in Integrated Cancer Therapies showed those receiving immunotherapy reported less fatigue when incorporating exercise (77% of participants were simply walking). How much is enough? The American College of Sports Medicine suggests cancer patients get 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.

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Know That Moving May Promote Healing, too

Beyond making you feel better, exercise may have positive effects on your condition. Dr. Betof Warner, who focuses on how to use exercise to improve cancer therapy, is studying mice running on a treadmill—and while still very early, the results are promising, pointing to a slowdown in melanoma tumor growth due an exercise-induced immune response. Not sure what type of exercise you can do? Ask your doctor. “There are exercise oncologists or physiologists who are specifically trained to work with cancer patients,” says Dr. Betof Warner.

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Eat Your Antioxidants

Foods rich in antioxidants, substances that may prevent or delay cell damage, may help ward off melanoma, research has shown. So boosting your intake while treating advanced melanoma makes sense, too. For instance, antioxidant-rich green tea can inhibit the growth of melanoma cells. But doctors caution patients from stocking up on green tea and other antioxidants in pill form. “We don’t know how these supplements interact with immunotherapy and targeted drugs, because these drug classes are still pretty new,” says Dr. Betof Warner. So, doctors suggest melanoma patients eat their antioxidants. Aim for a rainbow of fruits and veggies.

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Fill Up on Fiber

The bacteria in your gut play a big role in your immune system, so it makes sense that having a higher diversity of gut bacteria may affect how well a person responds to immunotherapy, a leading treatment for stage 4 melanoma. “The best that we know is that a diet rich in fiber is beneficial for immunotherapy outcomes and promotes healthy gut bacteria,” says Dr. Betof Warner. There is an on-going research study on this topic right now. In the meantime, boosting your intake of dietary fiber (through whole-grain foods, fruits and vegetables, not a fiber supplement) while you’re on immunotherapy may be beneficial.

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Try Acupuncture

The ancient Chinese practice of placing fine needles into specific points throughout the body has long been known to help with cancer-related pain and treatment symptoms such as nausea and fatigue, says Philip Friedlander, M.D., assistant professor of hematology and medical oncology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “There are no studies to show it can help improve melanoma itself, but it may help manage pain and symptoms associated with the cancer and its metastases,” he says. Worth poking around for an experienced practitioner.

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Connect With Your Breath

In recent years, the idea of meditation as a tool for your health has gone mainstream, especially amongst cancer patients. The mind-body practice can help with anxiety, stress, fatigue, depression, and sleep quality for those being treated with cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Dendy Engelman, M.D., director of dermatologic surgery at New York Medical College, highly recommends it for those grappling with late-stage melanoma. “Developing a stronger state of mind to deal with your illness can be nothing but beneficial,” she says. She also points to data showing meditation can boost immunity and decrease the stress hormone cortisol, promoting healing.

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Consider CBD

You probably know that medical marijuana can help with pain and inflammation, as well as decrease anxiety and nausea while undergoing cancer treatments. But if that’s not your thing, you may reap similar benefits from cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound in the cannabis plant that doesn’t get you high. CBD, often taken as a tincture, reduces inflammation and eases pain, and it may have an additional benefit specifically for melanoma. Cannabinoids, including CBD, in animal studies at least, may reduce melanoma tumor growth, according to a review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

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Talk It Out

Getting psychosocial support via talk therapy can help you cope with an overwhelming diagnosis and treatment plan. “I find counseling to be exceptionally helpful for patients with a stage 4 diagnosis,” says Dr. Betof Warner. Amongst the biggest stressors, she says, is a fear of the unknown. “Patients ask what their prognosis is, and I can’t actually tell them that because it depends on their response to the treatment,” she says. “In some ways, that’s much harder than hearing you have a poor prognosis.” A trained professional can help you grapple with that uncertainty and a stew of difficult feelings.

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Join a Support Group

There’s strength in sharing our experiences, and sitting with a group of people who are in, or have been in, your exact shoes can help you cope with your stage 4 melanoma diagnosis and promote hope. It especially helps to connect with long-term survivors, says Dr. Betof Warner. “I can tell my patients that I have other patients with metastatic melanoma that are alive five years later, but if they can meet them and see them for themselves, it really can make a pretty profound difference,” she says.

  • Exercise and Fatigue in Advanced Melanoma: Integrative Cancer Therapies. (2019). “Exercise Behaviors and Fatigue in Patients Receiving Immunotherapy for Advanced Melanoma: A Cross-Sectional Survey via Social Media.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6685109/

  • Gut Health and Immunotherapy for Melanoma: American Association for Cancer Research. (2019). “The Gut Microbiome (GM) and Immunotherapy Response are Influenced by Host Lifestyle Factors.” abstractsonline.com/pp8/#!/6812/presentation/4578

  • CBD and Melanoma: International Journal of Molecular Sciences. (2020). “Roles of Cannabinoids in Melanoma: Evidence in Vivo Studies.” mdpi.com/1422-0067/21/17/6040

  • Meditation and Cancer: American Cancer Society. (n.d.). “Take a Moment with Meditation.” cancer.org

Krista Bennett DeMaio
Meet Our Writer
Krista Bennett DeMaio

Krista Bennett DeMaio has well over a decade of editorial experience. The former magazine-editor-turned-freelance writer regularly covers skincare, health, beauty, and lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in national publications and websites including Oprah, Women’s Health, Redbook, Shape, Dr. Oz The Good Life, bhg.com, and prevention.com. She lives in Huntington, New York with her husband and three daughters.