Melanoma is a cancer of the skin cells. In stage 4 melanoma, the cancer is advanced and has spread from its place of origin to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, brain, or liver.
Melanoma occurs when the pigment-producing cells called melanocytes mutate and become cancerous. It can develop on any part of the body but is more likely to affect the chest, neck, back, and face. Melanoma is also common on the legs in women.
According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for stage 4 melanoma is 15–20 percent. This means that an estimated 15–20 percent of people with stage 4 melanoma will be alive 5 years after diagnosis.
Many different factors influence an individual's chance of survival. Survival rates are estimates that use data from large group studies and do not take individual circumstances into account.
People's age and their response to treatment can affect survival rates, as well as the availability of new treatment options.
Doctors previously considered advanced melanoma to be untreatable, but today the outlook has significantly improved.
The most noticeable sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole or a change in an existing mole or birthmark. People should be aware of any pigmented areas on the skin that appear abnormal in color, shape, size, or texture.
People with stage 4 melanoma may also have ulcerated skin, which is skin with tiny breaks on the surface. These ulcerations can bleed.
Another sign is swollen or hard lymph nodes, which a doctor can confirm by carrying out a physical examination. Other tests include blood tests and imaging scans to confirm the presence of cancer and check how much it has spread.
Newer methods of treatment for stage 4 melanoma include immunotherapy and targeted therapy. These treatments specifically target and destroy the cancer cells, avoiding damage to surrounding healthy cells.
In about half of all melanoma cases, there are mutations or genetic changes in a gene called the BRAF gene.
People with melanoma who have this mutated gene can use targeted therapy drugs called BRAF inhibitors. These medicines attack the BRAF protein and shrink or slow the growth of the cancer cells.
People can do a few things to make it easier to cope with a stage 4 melanoma diagnosis, the treatment, and the post-treatment journey:
- Keep all follow-up appointments: It is vital to see a doctor frequently to discuss any side effects and check for new signs of melanoma. People with advanced-stage melanomas should have physical exams every 3–6 months for several years, even after completing treatment.
- Get emotional support: In addition to the physical burden of the disease, cancer can be stressful and emotionally distressing. Some people may have anxiety, while others experience feelings of denial, anger, and depression. It is crucial to speak openly about these feelings and seek help from loved ones, support groups, and therapists.
- Consult a nutrition expert or lifestyle counselor: Eating a healthful diet and increasing physical activity levels can smooth a person's recovery and improve their long-term health.
Treatment can completely cure melanoma in many cases, especially when it has not spread extensively. However, melanoma can also recur.
It is natural to have questions about the treatment, its side effects, and the chances of cancer recurring. People with concerns should discuss them with a doctor who can offer advice that takes their medical history and overall health into account.
Stage 4 melanoma is much more treatable today than it was a few decades ago. Monitoring moles and skin changes can help a person catch melanoma in the early stages and reduce the risk of it spreading.
People who do not respond to current treatments can also consider enrolling in clinical trials. These studies continue to look for new targeted drugs and combinations of treatments that can improve anti-cancer care and quality of life.
Anyone dealing with a stage 4 melanoma diagnosis should talk to a doctor frequently about their symptoms and reach out to loved ones and professionals for emotional support.