Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given as a single drug or a regimen. These drugs may be given as pills or by injection or infusion into a vein. Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles, lasting between two and four weeks.

If the spread of the melanoma is thought to be limited to an arm or a leg, chemotherapy may be concentrated in that limb in a technique known as isolated limb perfusion. This technique prevents the blood in the arm or leg from travelling though the body for a short time. This allows the drugs to act on the tumour.

Isolated limb infusion is another form of treatment which uses chemotherapy to treat cancer which is confined to a limb. Isolated limb infusion (ILI) is a minimally invasive procedure used to deliver high doses of chemotherapy to recurrent melanomas or sarcomas in the arms or legs. ILI is an alternative to isolated limb perfusion (ILP).

Chemotherapy is not used alone very often. It is not very effective in treating melanoma. It may be effective to treat symptoms or extend life. Chemotherapy drugs include carboplatin, paclitaxel, and dacarbazine.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Chermotherapy Side Effects
Side effects of chemotherapy depend on the specific agent. Chemotherapy kills rapidly dividing cells, like cancer cells. It also damages normal cells that divide quickly. Cancer cells cannot recover from chemotherapy, but normal cells can repair the damage. Chemotherapy may cause the following side effects:

  • Red blood cells: Your blood contains red blood cells, which carry oxygen. If their production decreases, you may feel weak and tired. Red blood cell transfusions may be used to increase your red blood cell level. Injections of a hormone to stimulate red blood cell production may also be used. Your treatment team will check red blood cell levels before your next chemotherapy cycle. They will then determine if a transfusion or other treatment is needed.
  • White blood cells: Your blood also contains white blood cells, which fight infection. Chemotherapy often decreases the number of white blood cells. This makes infection more likely. Your treatment team will check white blood cell levels before your next chemotherapy cycle. If your white blood cells are very low, you may be given a medication to stimulate your body to make new white blood cells. Your next chemotherapy cycle may be delayed until your white blood cell levels recover.
  • Platelets: Your blood also contains small cells called platelets. These cells help blood clot when you cut or bruise yourself. Chemotherapy may decrease platelet levels. This makes bruising more likely. Your gums may also bleed when you brush your teeth. Your treatment team will check platelet levels before your next chemotherapy cycle. If your platelets are very low, you may receive a platelet transfusion.
  • Hair: The cells in your hair roots also divide quickly. Some types of chemotherapy may damage these cells. This may cause temporary hair loss. Hair grows back after chemotherapy. The colour and texture may change after chemotherapy.
  • Digestive tract: Cells lining the entire length of the digestive tract divide and multiply quickly. Chemotherapy often affects the digestive tract. This may cause mouth sores, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Medications can help prevent nausea and vomiting and manage other digestive tract symptoms. Your treatment team will provide the information you need to minimize these problems.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Chemotherapy

  • Why do you recommend chemotherapy for me?
  • Which medications do you recommend and why?
  • What do I need to know about the medication?
  • How long will treatment last?
  • What side effects does my chemotherapy have?
  • Are there any long-term side effects?

Melanoma Drug Therapies

The past few years have been breakthrough melanoma drug therapies for the treatment of metastatic melanoma. Learn about the different therapies available in Canada

Melanoma What You Need To Know

A leading national melanoma resource written with the help of specialists in oncology and health care.

Melanoma Support

The Melanoma Network of Canada has a number of free services for patients, caregivers and healthcare professionals.