Managing stage 3 melanoma is a late-stage melanoma. Depending on the sub-stage, management can involve surgery, medications, radiation, or chemotherapy.
Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. It affects melanocytes, the skin cells that produce melanin, which is the pigment that colors your skin.
The later it’s diagnosed, such as in stage 3, the more likely it is to metastasize or spread to other parts of the body.
Melanoma can also develop in other organs, such as your eyes and intestines, but this is uncommon. Multiple studies have found that the incidence rate of stage 3 melanoma is somewhere between
Stage 3 melanoma, also written as stage III, is an advanced form of skin cancer. Unlike in stages 1 and 2, the cancer in stage 3 melanoma has spread from the skin cells to the lymph nodes.
The lymph nodes are small tissues located in your neck, under your arms, and in other areas throughout the body. Your lymph nodes may or may not be swollen in stage 3.
Doctors divide stage 3 melanoma into three categories: 3A, 3B, and 3C. Stage 3A is the least serious, while stage 3C is the most advanced. Staging depends on the location of the cancer, the size of the tumors, and whether they have ulcerated.
Learn more about the stages of melanoma.
Surgery is the first-line treatment for stage 3 melanoma. Your surgeon will remove the tumors, cancerous lymph nodes, and some normal tissue around the tumors.
Your surgeon will also take skin from another part of your body (skin graft) to replace the removed skin. After surgery, you may need other treatments, such as immunotherapy, if there’s a high risk of the cancer coming back.
When surgery isn’t the right treatment, there are:
- targeted therapy, or drugs that attack cancer cells with less damage to normal cells
- injections into the tumor
Immunotherapy helps stop or slow tumor growth and boosts the immune system. Immunotherapy is sometimes also called targeted therapy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Chemotherapy for melanoma has limited success, but your doctors may suggest combining it with immunotherapy. This medication-based treatment aims to destroy all the cancer cells in your body. In some cases, you can have regional chemotherapy, which delivers medicine to just an arm or a leg. This way, fewer healthy cells are killed along with the cancerous cells.
In addition, your doctor may have to take medications after surgery that can reduce the chance of your melanoma returning. This is called adjuvant therapy.
In addition to traditional treatments, your doctor will recommend palliative therapy. This may include radiation therapy to help reduce pain. Palliative therapy doesn’t treat melanoma, but it can help relieve symptoms and improve your overall quality of life.
After your treatment, your doctor will recommend a regular follow-up schedule to monitor your cancer. They’ll be checking to make sure cancer hasn’t come back or new cancerous lesions haven’t appeared. The types of follow-up include:
- A yearly skin check: Skin checks are an important aspect of detecting melanoma in its earliest, most treatable stages. You should also conduct a skin check on yourself once per month. Look everywhere from the bottoms of your feet to behind your neck.
- Imaging tests every three months to a year: Imaging studies, such as an X-ray, CT scan, or brain MRI, look for cancer recurrence.
- Physical exam: A physical exam to assess your overall health is important when you have melanoma. For the first two years, you’ll want to get an exam every three to six months. Then for the next three years, the appointments can be every three months to a year. After the fifth year, the exams can be as needed. Do a monthly self-examination of your lymph nodes to check your progress.
Your doctor may recommend a different schedule based on your overall health.
Managing stage 3 melanoma can be challenging. With technological and medical advances, this diagnosis may not be as severe as it once was.
After your surgery or if you’re unable to undergo surgery, you may need adjuvant treatment to prevent the cancer from coming back. There is adjuvant radiation therapy and adjuvant immunotherapy. These therapies help reduce the risk of melanoma returning, but they don’t increase your survival rate.
Complementary and alternative medicine can’t treat melanoma, but they may help manage the side effects of your standard treatment. These therapies include:
- nutrition therapy to help fight infections and reduce fatigue
- herbal medicines to prevent tumors from forming
- acupuncture and acupressure to decrease pain
- hydrotherapy to relieve pain
- meditation to relieve stress and anxiety
That said, clinical research backing these interventions is either limited or lacking.
Learn more about alternative treatments for melanoma.
The survival rates for stage 3 melanoma vary based on the size of the primary tumor and how far the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes and other organs.
Is melanoma stage 3 terminal?
Stage 3 melanoma can be terminal. According to research from 2021, the 5-year survival rates range ranges from
Learn more specific survival rates for melanoma by stage.
Can melanoma stage 3 be cured?
It’s possible for melanoma to go into remission after treatment.
That said, the chances of stage 3 melanoma coming back are moderate to high.
According to additional 2021 research, the recurrence rate of stage 3 melanoma is 63% for those who did not undergo adjuvant treatment, compared to 37% among those who did. The median time it took for the melanoma to return was 7.5 and 9 months respectively.
Risk factors for cancer recurrence include if four or more lymph nodes had cancer or if the lymph nodes measured more than three centimeters in size.
With a melanoma diagnosis, it’s important to reach out to those close to you during your treatment. In addition to family and friends, there are many support groups and resources that can help answer questions or provide a listening ear.
Find a melanoma support group. The American Melanoma Foundation maintains a list of support groups throughout the country — find them by clicking here.
Join an online support group. If you feel more comfortable participating in an online support group, the AIM at Melanoma Foundation offers a support community as well as counseling.
Seek financial assistance, if needed. The Melanoma Research Foundation has developed a central resource for patient assistance programs and government entities that offer financial assistance for those with melanoma. For more information, please click here.
Sign up for a mentoring program. Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton’s charity, 4th Angel, offers a mentoring program for those with cancer. This telephone-based program is designed to provide support and encouragement to those with cancer.
Many organizations provide professional and supportive services when you’ve been diagnosed with melanoma. Other organizations that provide support for those with skin cancer include the:
Your oncologist may also be able to suggest resources in your area.