August 4, 2016

New treatments extend survival for late-stage melanoma patients

Summertime means fun in the sun, but ultraviolet rays from the sun or tanning beds will result in more than 80,000 new melanoma cases this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

When caught early, skin cancer is very treatable -- the five-year survival rate for early-stage melanoma is 92 percent. Those numbers drop when the disease spreads through the body (63 percent) or to distant tissues or organs (17 percent).

Because melanoma has the potential to spread quickly, researchers have developed some exciting new treatments for advanced-stage melanoma that extend lives.

"Early-stage melanoma is typically removed surgically," said Lawrence Flaherty, M.D., professor of Oncology for the Wayne State University School of Medicine and leader of the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Multidisciplinary Team and director of the Clinical Trials Office for the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. "Immunotherapy and targeted therapies are among the newer treatments for cases that cannot be managed surgically."

Immunotherapy drugs stimulate the body's immune system to destroy cancer cells. One type of drug allows the immune system to better identify and attack specific cancer cells, while another is designed to restore or enhance pre-existing anti-cancer immune responses. Patients receive an immunotherapy drug intravenously.

"Immunotherapy treatments can be durable," Dr. Flaherty said. "Up to 40 percent of patients do well three to five years after starting treatment. But altering the immune system can also cause it to become overactive and attack the gastrointestinal tract and endocrine organs."

Targeted therapies work best for melanoma patients with a gene mutation called BRAF. Drugs taken orally target the mutation in melanoma cells, control the cancer and put it into remission.

"About 60 to 70 percent of targeted therapy patients benefit quickly," Dr. Flaherty said. "Patients can experience six months to a year of benefit before the cancer cells become more resistant to the drugs. Some side effects include fever, joint pain and fatigue, but we can reduce them by adjusting the medication dose.

"These newer therapies can give late-stage melanoma patients some dramatic benefits, which is very encouraging," he added. "Immunotherapy is revolutionizing how we treat melanoma as well as other diseases like kidney and lung cancer. We're continually refining and improving these treatments to give cancer patients more hope."

Dr. Flaherty offers these skin cancer prevention tips:

• Limit sun exposure and avoid tanning beds.
• Wear sunglasses and protective clothing (long-sleeve shirts and hats).
• Apply sunscreen liberally. Look for a SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of at least 15.
• Reapply sunscreen every two hours if you're active outdoors.
• Remember to apply sunscreen to your ears, lips and the back of your neck.