Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Melanoma

Health Writer
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When you are first diagnosed with melanoma, you will probably have more questions than answers. Read through for what you might want to ask your doctor.


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What stage is my melanoma? How did you determine that?

Doctors use a variety of techniques to determine the stage of melanoma, according the American Cancer Society. First, they do a physical exam, noting the size, shape, and color of the lesion. They might use a magnifying lens to see the lesion more clearly. They will check your lymph nodes to see if they are enlarged. They will send a sample to a lab for a biopsy for additional information. All of the results together help a doctor determine the stage of your melanoma.


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Will I need any other tests before we decide on treatment?

If you have advanced melanoma, your doctor might suggest genetic testing, imaging with a dye or a CT scans, MRI scan or PET scan to help determine if the cancer has spread and if so, to what parts of the body, according to the American Cancer Society.


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Should I get a second opinion?

You are always able to get a second opinion. If your doctor isn’t associated with a large cancer center, that might be a good place to seek a second opinion. Your doctor can also recommend melanoma specialists for a second opinion. Seeing a second doctor can help you better understand your diagnosis and your treatment options.


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Can you remove all of the cancer through surgery alone?

Sometimes cancer can be removed completely with surgery. Sometimes additional treatments, such as radiation or chemotherapy, are needed to make sure that any cancer cells left do not spread to other parts of the body. Your doctor will talk to you about surgery and the chances of removing all of it. He will also discuss other options that might be recommended in addition to or in place of surgery, such as immunotherapy or targeted therapy.


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How will we know if the treatment is working?

Throughout your treatment, your doctor will schedule follow-up tests, such as imaging scans and blood tests, to monitor your cancer. These will be compared to your original results to determine if your cancer is shrinking or is gone.


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How successful is treatment for melanoma?

When melanoma is detected in the early stages, the survival rate is quite high, with about 95 percent of people living at least 10 years after diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society. Your success will depend on how soon your cancer was detected and treated.


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Will my surgery leave a noticeable scar?

Some surgeries for melanoma do leave a scar. Moh’s surgery, where the surgeon removes one layer of the cancer at a time until no cancer is detected, is less likely to leave a scar than excisional surgery; however, this type of surgery is not always the best option for melanoma. If scarring will be extensive, your doctor can refer you to a plastic surgeon for reconstructive surgery. The amount of scarring will depend on the size and stage of your cancer.


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How long will I need these treatments?

How long you need treatment is based on the stage of your cancer and how far it has spread. For example, chemotherapy for melanoma is given in cycles with each cycle lasting a few weeks, according to the American Cancer Society. Your doctor will continue to monitor your cancer to determine how long treatment should continue.


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What are the chances of my cancer coming back?

When melanoma returns, it is called recurrent cancer. Your risk of recurrent melanoma depends on the thickness of the primary cancer, whether there was ulceration, and whether there were satellite metastases.


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How often should I see you for follow-up?

Follow-up care after melanoma is extremely important. People who have had melanoma are at a high risk of developing melanoma again. In an interview, Jeffrey S. Weber, M.D., says that “follow-up visits to an oncologist or specialized dermatologist should occur every three months for a minimum of five years.” After that, you should see your dermatologist, at a minimum, once a year.


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Am I eligible for a clinical trial?

Each clinical trial has its own eligibility requirements. You can find a list of clinical trials at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center, the National Cancer Institute, or the Melanoma Research Foundation. In addition, your doctor may know of clinical trials.


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Will treatment for my cancer affect my ability to have children?

Some cancer treatments can affect fertility. If you are planning on having children in the future, you should discuss this with your doctor and ask about the effect on fertility for different treatment methods.


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Are there any complementary therapies I can do while receiving cancer treatment?

Complementary treatments can include spiritual or emotional counseling, nutrition, vitamins, and herbal supplements. Some, such as counseling, can help you better cope with your diagnosis and treatment. Others, such as vitamins and herbal supplements, should be discussed with your doctor, as they may interfere with your treatment according to the National Cancer Institute.