Stage III Melanoma


Stage III melanoma includes cancers of any thickness with tumor spread to regional lymph nodes. The extent or amount of tumor in the lymph nodes is the most important prognostic factor for patients with stage III melanoma. The presence of micrometastases, defined as tumor detected by sentinel lymph node biopsy, is more favorable than the presence of macrometastases, which are defined as clinically detectable nodal metastases. Similarly, one lymph node that contains tumor is more favorable than having four or more involved lymph nodes.

The following is a general overview of treatment for stage III melanoma. Treatment may consist of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, biological therapy, targeted therapy or some combination of these treatment techniques. Multi-modality treatment, which utilizes two or more treatments, is increasingly recognized as an important approach for improving a patient’s chance of cure or prolonging survival.

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As a result of recent drug discoveries many new treatment options have recently become available for the management of melanoma. Clinical trials utilizing these new, innovative therapies may provide the most promising treatment. The potential benefits of multi-modality care, participation in a clinical trial, or standard treatment must be carefully balanced with the potential risks. The information on this website is intended to help educate patients about their treatment options and to facilitate a mutual or shared decision-making process with their treating cancer physician.1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17

Surgical Treatment of Stage III Disease

Outcomes of patients with stage III melanoma relates primarily to the extent of lymph node metastasis. Standard surgical treatment for patients with stage III melanoma is removal of the primary cancer with up to 2-centimeter (over an inch) margins of the adjacent skin, depending on the thickness of the primary tumor, and removal of all of the regional lymph nodes. Regional lymph node dissection may be performed in the neck, armpit or groin, depending on the site of the primary tumor and presence of palpable nodes. Chronic side effects of removing lymph nodes vary, depending on the extent of disease, body habits of the patient, and inclusion of postoperative radiation to site, but may include numbness, and swelling of the associated extremity, which is called lymphedema.

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The Melanoma Research Foundation

Historically, patients with locoregional spread of melanoma (stage III disease) and thick primary tumors have been considered appropriate candidates for adjuvant therapy because of high rates of distant recurrence and subsequent death from disease. Our ability to detect micrometastatic locoregional disease has improved over the past decade with the adoption of new techniques such as sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy. In addition, the pathologic assessment of sentinel lymph nodes have improved with the availability of immunohistochemical staining which allows detection of nodal metastases as small as 0.1 mm or even aggregates of a few cells.   For this reason, the current era can be viewed as one of transition, in which patients are being diagnosed with stage III disease earlier with a much better prognosis and lower risk of relapse. The significance of these technologic advances is reflected in the new American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) staging system, which now incorporates pathologic nodal staging.

One of the challenges facing oncologists is assessing the risks for individual patients on the basis of data from previously published studies. Five-year overall survival rates for patients with stage III melanoma have been reported as ranging from 70% for stage IIIA to 27% for stage IIIC disease. In this group of patients, assembled largely during the pre-sentinel lymph node era, patients with stage I and II disease were reported to have 5-year recurrence-free survival rates of 90% and 70%, respectively. The 10% to 30% recurrence rates likely reflect unidentified microscopic disease, which can be detected with present-day techniques.

Adjuvant Treatment of Stage III Disease

Strategies to Improve Treatment

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