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Melanoma Treatment (PDQ®)

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Stage II Melanoma Treatment

Standard Treatment Options for Stage II Melanoma

Standard treatment options for stage II melanoma include the following:

  1. Excision with or without lymph node management.


For melanomas with a thickness between 2 mm and 4 mm, surgical margins need to be 2 cm to 3 cm or smaller.

Few data are available to guide treatment in patients with melanomas thicker than 4 mm; however, most guidelines recommend margins of 3 cm whenever anatomically possible.

Depending on the location of the melanoma, most patients can have the excision performed on an outpatient basis.

Evidence (excision):

  1. The Intergroup Melanoma Surgical Trial Task 2b compared 2-cm versus 4-cm margins for patients with melanomas that were 1 mm to 4 mm thick.[1]
    • With a median follow-up of more than 10 years, no significant difference in local recurrence or survival was observed between the two groups.
    • The reduction in margins from 4 cm to 2 cm was associated with the following:
      • A statistically significant reduction in the need for skin grafting (from 46% to 11%; P < .001).
      • A reduction in the length of the hospital stay.
  2. A study conducted in the United Kingdom randomly assigned patients with melanomas thicker than 2 mm to undergo excision with either 1-cm or 3-cm margins.[2]
    • Patients treated with excision with 1-cm margins had higher rates of local regional recurrence (hazard ratio [HR], 1.26; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.00–1.59; P = .05).
    • No difference in survival was seen (HR, 1.24; 95% CI, 0.96–1.61; P = .1).
    • This study suggests that 1-cm margins may not be adequate for patients with melanomas thicker than 2 mm.
Lymph Node Management
Lymphatic mapping and sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB)

Lymphatic mapping and SLNB have been used to assess the presence of occult metastasis in the regional lymph nodes of patients with stage II disease, potentially identifying individuals who may be spared the morbidity of regional lymph node dissections (LNDs) and individuals who may benefit from adjuvant therapy.[3-7]

To ensure accurate identification of the sentinel lymph node (SLN), lymphatic mapping and removal of the SLN should precede wide excision of the primary melanoma.

With the use of a vital blue dye and a radiopharmaceutical agent injected at the site of the primary tumor, the first lymph node in the lymphatic basin that drains the lesion can be identified, removed, and examined microscopically. Multiple studies have demonstrated the diagnostic accuracy of SLNB, with false-negative rates of 0% to 2%.[3,8-12] If metastatic melanoma is detected, a complete regional lymphadenectomy can be performed in a second procedure.

Regional lymphadenectomy

No published data on the clinical significance of micrometastatic melanoma in regional lymph nodes are available from prospective trials. Some evidence suggests that for patients with tumors of intermediate thickness and occult metastasis, survival is better among patients who undergo immediate regional lymphadenectomy than it is among those who delay lymphadenectomy until the clinical appearance of nodal metastasis.[13] This finding should be viewed with caution because it arose from a post hoc subset analysis of data from a randomized trial.

Evidence (regional lymphadenectomy):

  1. The International Multicenter Selective Lymphadenectomy Trial (MSLT-1 [JWCI-MORD-MSLT-1193]) included 1,269 patients with intermediate-thickness (defined as 1.2 mm–3.5 mm in this study) primary melanomas.[14][Level of evidence: 1iiB]
    • There was no melanoma-specific survival advantage (primary endpoint) for patients randomly assigned to undergo wide excision plus SLNB, followed by immediate complete lymphadenectomy for node positivity versus nodal observation and delayed lymphadenectomy for subsequent nodal recurrence at a median of 59.8 months.
    • This trial was not designed to detect a difference in the impact of lymphadenectomy in patients with microscopic lymph node involvement.
  2. Three other prospective randomized trials have failed to show a survival benefit for prophylactic regional LNDs.[15-17]

Adjuvant therapy

High-dose interferon

High-dose interferon alpha-2b was approved in 1995 for the adjuvant treatment of patients with melanoma who have undergone a complete surgical resection but are considered to be at a high risk of relapse. Evidence was based on a significantly improved relapse-free survival (RFS) and marginally improved overall survival (OS) that were seen in EST-1684.

Subsequent large, randomized trials have not been able to reproduce a benefit in OS. Ongoing trials are testing therapies that have demonstrated improved OS in patients with stage IV disease.

Clinicians should be aware that the high-dose regimens have significant toxic effects.

Evidence (high-dose interferon alpha-2b):

  1. A multicenter, randomized, controlled study (EST-1684) compared a high-dose regimen of interferon alpha-2b (20 mU/m2 of body surface per day given intravenously 5 days a week for 4 weeks, then 10 mU/m2 of body surface per day given subcutaneously 3 times a week for 48 weeks) with observation.[8][Level of evidence: 1iiA]
    • This study included 287 patients at high risk of recurrence after potentially curative surgery for melanoma (patients with melanomas thicker than 4 mm without involved lymph nodes or patients with melanomas of any thickness with positive lymph nodes).
    • Patients who had recurrent melanoma involving only the regional lymph nodes were also eligible.
    • At a median follow-up of 7 years, this trial demonstrated a significant prolongation of RFS (P = .002) and OS (P = .024) for patients who received high-dose interferon.
    • The median OS for patients who received the high-dose regimen of interferon alpha-2b was 3.8 years, compared with 2.8 years for those in the observation group.
    • A subset analysis of the stage II patients failed to show any RFS or OS benefit from high-dose interferon. Because the number of stage II patients was small in this subset analysis, it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from this study for this specific group.
  2. A multicenter, randomized, controlled study (EST-1690) conducted by the same investigators compared the same high-dose interferon alpha regimen with either a low-dose regimen of interferon alpha-2b (3 mU/m2 of body surface per day given subcutaneously 3 times per week for 104 weeks) or observation. The stage entry criteria for this trial included patients with stage II and III melanoma. This three-arm trial enrolled 642 patients.[9][Level of evidence: 1iiA]
    • At a median follow-up of 52 months, a statistically significant RFS advantage was shown for all patients who received high-dose interferon (including the clinical stage II patients) when compared with the observation group (P = .03).
    • No statistically significant RFS advantage was seen for patients who received low-dose interferon when compared with the observation group.
    • The 5-year estimated RFS rate was 44% for the high-dose interferon group, 40% for the low-dose interferon group, and 35% for the observation group.
    • Neither high-dose nor low-dose interferon yielded an OS benefit when compared with observation (HR, 1.0; P = .995).

Treatment Options Under Clinical Evaluation for Stage II Melanoma

Postsurgical adjuvant treatment (e.g., with interferons) has not been shown to affect survival.

Treatment options under clinical evaluation for patients with stage II melanoma include the following:

  1. Clinical trials are testing therapies of postsurgical adjuvant treatment that have improved OS in patients with stage IV disease, including NCT01274338, NCT01667419, and NCT01682083. Postsurgical adjuvant treatment (e.g., with interferons) has not been shown to affect survival; therefore, clinical trials are an important therapeutic option for patients at high risk for relapse.

Current Clinical Trials

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II melanoma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.


  1. Balch CM, Urist MM, Karakousis CP, et al.: Efficacy of 2-cm surgical margins for intermediate-thickness melanomas (1 to 4 mm). Results of a multi-institutional randomized surgical trial. Ann Surg 218 (3): 262-7; discussion 267-9, 1993. [PUBMED Abstract]
  2. Thomas JM, Newton-Bishop J, A'Hern R, et al.: Excision margins in high-risk malignant melanoma. N Engl J Med 350 (8): 757-66, 2004. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. Gershenwald JE, Thompson W, Mansfield PF, et al.: Multi-institutional melanoma lymphatic mapping experience: the prognostic value of sentinel lymph node status in 612 stage I or II melanoma patients. J Clin Oncol 17 (3): 976-83, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
  4. McMasters KM, Reintgen DS, Ross MI, et al.: Sentinel lymph node biopsy for melanoma: controversy despite widespread agreement. J Clin Oncol 19 (11): 2851-5, 2001. [PUBMED Abstract]
  5. Cherpelis BS, Haddad F, Messina J, et al.: Sentinel lymph node micrometastasis and other histologic factors that predict outcome in patients with thicker melanomas. J Am Acad Dermatol 44 (5): 762-6, 2001. [PUBMED Abstract]
  6. Essner R: The role of lymphoscintigraphy and sentinel node mapping in assessing patient risk in melanoma. Semin Oncol 24 (1 Suppl 4): S8-10, 1997. [PUBMED Abstract]
  7. Chan AD, Morton DL: Sentinel node detection in malignant melanoma. Recent Results Cancer Res 157: 161-77, 2000. [PUBMED Abstract]
  8. Morton DL, Wen DR, Wong JH, et al.: Technical details of intraoperative lymphatic mapping for early stage melanoma. Arch Surg 127 (4): 392-9, 1992. [PUBMED Abstract]
  9. Reintgen D, Cruse CW, Wells K, et al.: The orderly progression of melanoma nodal metastases. Ann Surg 220 (6): 759-67, 1994. [PUBMED Abstract]
  10. Thompson JF, McCarthy WH, Bosch CM, et al.: Sentinel lymph node status as an indicator of the presence of metastatic melanoma in regional lymph nodes. Melanoma Res 5 (4): 255-60, 1995. [PUBMED Abstract]
  11. Uren RF, Howman-Giles R, Thompson JF, et al.: Lymphoscintigraphy to identify sentinel lymph nodes in patients with melanoma. Melanoma Res 4 (6): 395-9, 1994. [PUBMED Abstract]
  12. Bostick P, Essner R, Glass E, et al.: Comparison of blue dye and probe-assisted intraoperative lymphatic mapping in melanoma to identify sentinel nodes in 100 lymphatic basins. Arch Surg 134 (1): 43-9, 1999. [PUBMED Abstract]
  13. Cascinelli N, Morabito A, Santinami M, et al.: Immediate or delayed dissection of regional nodes in patients with melanoma of the trunk: a randomised trial. WHO Melanoma Programme. Lancet 351 (9105): 793-6, 1998. [PUBMED Abstract]
  14. Morton DL, Thompson JF, Cochran AJ, et al.: Sentinel-node biopsy or nodal observation in melanoma. N Engl J Med 355 (13): 1307-17, 2006. [PUBMED Abstract]
  15. Veronesi U, Adamus J, Bandiera DC, et al.: Delayed regional lymph node dissection in stage I melanoma of the skin of the lower extremities. Cancer 49 (11): 2420-30, 1982. [PUBMED Abstract]
  16. Sim FH, Taylor WF, Ivins JC, et al.: A prospective randomized study of the efficacy of routine elective lymphadenectomy in management of malignant melanoma. Preliminary results. Cancer 41 (3): 948-56, 1978. [PUBMED Abstract]
  17. Balch CM, Soong SJ, Bartolucci AA, et al.: Efficacy of an elective regional lymph node dissection of 1 to 4 mm thick melanomas for patients 60 years of age and younger. Ann Surg 224 (3): 255-63; discussion 263-6, 1996. [PUBMED Abstract]
  • Updated: November 7, 2014