How to Heal And Stay Healthy After Melanoma Surgery

If you caught your melanoma early, it’s usually removed through outpatient surgery. For some, radiation or immunotherapy comes next. For more advanced cases, there are additional options like targeted or adjuvant treatment, meds that enhance the effectiveness of surgery. Still, even if no other treatments are required, life after melanoma surgery does not simply—poof—return to normal. Follow these steps to take to aid your recovery, stay healthy post-op, and even help guard against recurrence.

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Listen to Your Doctor

“For the fastest recovery, you must follow your physician’s directions,” says Kimberly Brady, M.D., director of dermatologic surgery at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY. That means not exercising before you’re given the green light. (“You could easily split open your wound,” she says.) It also means not bending the wound-care rules. “I have patients who’ve used triple antibiotic ointment on their own, which is not a good idea,” says Dr. Brady. “This greatly increases your chances of contact dermatitis, which complicates and slows the healing process.”

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Avoid Infection

Infection from melanoma surgery can occur anytime within 30 days of surgery. While your healthcare team may prescribe antibiotics to protect against infection, you should still take additional measures, such as not touching your bandage for the first 24 hours post-op and keeping the surrounding area clean and moisturized, since dry skin around the wound can delay healing. “Usually, wound care involves washing the site daily with soap and water, applying petroleum jelly, and covering with a non-stick bandage until healed,” says Dr. Brady.

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If You Smoke, Stop

Not only does quitting smoking improve your quality of life, “there’s hope that stopping might reduce the chances of recurrence,” says Julia Newton-Bishop, M.D, professor of dermatology at the University of Leeds in England. At the same time, quitting can help you heal faster. “Smoking impairs blood flow to a skin graft or flap, and significantly increases the chance of the graft not surviving,” says Anne Marie McNeill, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Newport Beach, California and a member of The Skin Cancer Foundation.

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Ask About Clinical Trials

While clinical trials aren’t for everyone, if you had a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) and cancer cells were detected, it’s smart to inquire about them. According to a 2019 report in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, the world’s largest number of melanoma studies is happening right here in the U.S. “That’s something that might not routinely come up, so you’ll want to consider asking,” asks Philip Friedlander, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Melanoma Medical Oncology Program at The Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai in New York City.

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PS: Don’t Delay!

“Let's say you had surgery for stage two or three melanoma, and you’re looking for a clinical trial for a melanoma vaccine,” says Dr. Friedlander. “The time to do that is shortly after surgery.” In fact, many trials restrict you to starting within a certain time frame post-surgery, which could be two to three months post-op. If your oncologist doesn’t practice at a center with ongoing clinical trials, ask if there are any nearby.

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Get Regular Skin Checks

“Compared to the general population, melanoma survivors are nine times more likely to develop a second melanoma,” says Dr. Brady. “That means regular visits to a dermatologist or oncologist is the most important aspect of follow-up care.” Pros can not only spot a recurrence quickly, they can also identify lesions that may be pre-cancerous or atypical, which can be easily treated with liquid nitrogen, a topical cream, or another simple procedure before they become cancerous.

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Stick to the Schedule

Those with stage 0 to 2a melanoma: See your derm or oncologist every 6 to 12 months for one to two years, then annually. Folks with stage 2b and higher: Go every three to six months for two years, then every six months for three to five years. All survivors should conduct monthly self-exams of their skin and lymph nodes. For skin check how-tos, visit the American Academy of Dermatology Association; for lymph node monitoring instrux, try the British Association of Dermatologists.

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Protect Your Skin

As we already know, melanoma survivors are more likely to develop a second melanoma, but they are also “at increased risk of developing nonmelanoma skin cancers,” says Dr. Brady. Because of all this, it’s important to limit exposure to UV rays. “Always seek shade, especially between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M.; wear protective clothing, like long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats; and use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher year-round,” says Dr. Brady. And, we’ve got to say it, no tanning beds!

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Get This Kind of Diet Help

“Cancer survivors may have improved quality of life, decreased risk of recurrence, and possibly improved mortality if certain lifestyle modifications are taken, including healthy eating habits,” says Dr. Brady. To help get there, the American Cancer Society recommends that anyone going through cancer treatment asks for a referral to see a registered dietitian, particularly one who’s also a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition.

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Healing Within Is Important, Too

It’s not just the physical you who needs to heal from surgery, but your emotional self, too. According to the same report in the journal The Surgical Clinics of North America mentioned earlier, levels of anxiety and depression are high among those with melanoma, and those feelings have been shown to manifest in delayed medical care and lower quality of life. So make your mental health part of your post-op recovery plan. Seek out a therapist who’s familiar with the emotional toll of cancer, and let the healing begin.

Holly Pevzner
Meet Our Writer
Holly Pevzner

Holly Pevzner specializes in creating health, nutrition, parenting and pregnancy content for a variety of publications, such as EatingWell, Family Circle, Parents, and Real Simple. Before becoming a full-time writer, Holly held senior staff positions at Prevention, Fitness, and Self magazines, covering medical health and psychology. She was also a contributing editor at Scholastic Parent & Child magazine. She resides with her family in Brooklyn, New York.