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Doctor Shares Advice for Newly Diagnosed Melanoma Patients

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Published on November 1, 2020

What Do Doctors Want Melanoma Patients to Know?

What is the cause of melanoma? How is it diagnosed? What does the initial treatment process for new melanoma patients entail? Finally, what questions should I be asking my doctor to make sure I receive the best of care? If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with melanoma, many of these questions may have crossed your mind. Luckily Dr. Sapna Patel, melanoma oncologist and associate professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is here to guide you through these questions and offer her first-hand advice to new melanoma patients. 

Transcript | Doctor Shares Advice for Newly Diagnosed Melanoma Patients

Dr. Patel: If I had known all of that sun exposure and ultraviolet recklessness that I had done in my youth was going to cause me to have a four-inch scar on my arm, on my face, on my leg. If I had known that, would I have chosen better?

What Is Melanoma?

Melanoma is skin cancer. It's one type of skin cancer, and we would describe it as the most aggressive, or most malignant of all the skin cancers. Skin cancers are primarily driven by ultraviolet exposure from the sun, from ultraviolet lights, so say, tanning bed use. Melanoma, as opposed to squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma — melanoma tends to go deep into the bloodstream and spread throughout the body. That's why we call it the most aggressive. Instead of staying outside on the skin, it has a tendency to travel internally, where it can become aggressive.

What Advice Can You Offer A Newly Diagnosed Melanoma Patient?

A patient who is newly diagnosed with melanoma can expect a multidisciplinary approach. Primarily, skin melanomas are removed surgically. There will be a surgical component to their treatment, but it's not a small surgery. Melanoma is one of the only cancers measured in millimeters. Millimeters means the tip of a ballpoint pen. Despite having a melanoma that size, you may have a scar that's four inches long.

Surgery is typically the first part of a newly diagnosed melanoma patient’s journey. Then there may be radiation, if there's spread to lymph nodes, the radiation therapist might get involved, or a medical oncologist, to try to treat the body with drug therapy.

What Questions Should I Be Asking My Doctor?

It is often someone else's responsibility to break the news to you that you have a cancer diagnosis. I am certain that that moment changes everybody's life. There is basically a before cancer set of events, and then an after cancer. By the time a patient comes to the oncologist to discuss how we will tackle this, they've probably played out a number of scenarios in their head.

I think it's really reasonable to ask your oncologist, "What is your goal for my melanoma?" Then, make sure that they are framing that in the context of your goal. Not every melanoma patient is asking for 30 more years to be alive. By the same token, not every patient with advanced disease is asking to throw in the towel. I think it's important to really understand what the goal of your oncologist is — what can they do for this melanoma? Is this curable? Is this surgically treatable? Does it require hospitalization, drug therapy? Then, make sure that they are aligned with what your goals are.

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