Medications for Melanoma

Removing the tumor with surgery is the main treatment for melanoma. Medication may be used :

  • For metastatic melanoma (cancer has spread)
  • If surgery is not an option

Medication may be used as a part of immunotherapy or targeted therapy.


Immunotherapy uses medication to boost the effects of the body's immune system. It makes it easier to find and kill cancer cells. This therapy may also be called biological response modifier therapy. These medications are given straight into the blood through a tube (IV) or injected under the skin.

Types of immunotherapy medications include:

  • Cytokines—Substances that boost a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes. These cells are a part of the natural immune system. Some cytokine can stop cancer cells from dividing. This will help slow the growth of the tumor.
  • PD-1 inhibitors—PD-1 is a protein found on a type of immune cells called T-cells. It stops T-cells from attacking the body's own cells and some therefore some cancer cells. This medication blocks the effects of PD-1. This allows T-cells to recognize and kill cancer cells.
  • CTLA-4 inhibitors—CTLA-4 inhibitors also block the effects of a protein on T-cells. This helps the T cells kill cancer cells.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy—A virus is injected into a tumor or lymph node. The virus kills the cancer cells and shrinks the tumor.
  • Bacille Callmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine—BCG is a form of the bacteria. It is injected into a tumor. This sets off a response from the immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Topical imiquimod—Stimulates the body's natural immune system to kill cancer cells. It is applied to the skin for stage 0—melanoma in situ. It may also be used for tumors in sensitive areas of the body. It can cause some serious skin reactions in some people.

Side effects include chills, fever, aches, depression, skin reactions, and fatigue.

Targeted Therapy

BRAF is a mutation found in the genes. It is found in half of melanomas. This gene makes proteins that speed up the growth of cancer cells. Targeted therapy seek out the cells with BRAF and destroys them.

Targeted therapy medications include:

  • Vemurafenib
  • Dabrafenib
  • Trametinib
  • Cobimetinib

These medications do not offer a cure for advanced melanoma. However, they can prolong life. The most common side effects are joint pain, fatigue, hair loss, rash, itching, sensitivity to the sun, and nausea.


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Last reviewed March 2018 by Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 4/3/2018

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