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What do terms like "primary" and :secondary" melanoma mean?

What is a primary melanoma and what is secondary melanoma? What do words like relapse mean?

A primary melanoma is a melanoma that is diagnosed where it started, usually on the skin. The primary should be completely removed by surgery, and at least 4 out of 5 people are completedy cured by that. Generally the melanoma is removed taking a narrow rim of skin around the melanoma but a second operation called the wide local excision is carried out later, to take more skin to reduce the chance that any cancer cells have been left behind.

In some patients, a secondary melanoma occurs which means that some of the melanoma cells which grew in the primary have spread somewhere else. The commonest place is the nearest lymph gland, so that if the primary melanoma was on the leg then the secondary spread of the cancer is most commonly to the groin. Secondaries in the lymph glands are usually diagnosed using sentinel node biopsy at the same time that the wide local excision is performed. Sometimes a secondary in a lymph node can cause a lump and secondaries can occur elsewhere in the skin or in other body sites.

When melanoma spreads to other tissues after wide local excision and sentinel node biopsy, then the patient is said to have suffered a recurrence of the cancer or metastasis of the cancer. When melanoma relapses it can sometimes also be removed by surgery but this usually requires the use of drug therapies.


 "I need more information"

The best first line source of information for melanoma patients is the medical team providing their care. There is additional information on the Cancer Research UK web page, from MacMillan or from NICE.

The treatment for melanoma is however currently evolving very quickly so that accessible  additional information about the results of clinical trials and treatment options can be very useful. MyMelanoma will produce accessible summaries of the most important published scientific papers.

There are also questions that patients want to ask for which there is little consensus eg concerning diet, and MyMelanoma will publish summaries of the literature (results of scientific studies),  accompanied by the "Personal Viewpoints" of experts in the field. MyMelanoma will also respond to participants' specific requests for information if it is possible to do so and if the question is one that a patient panel feels will be of general interest.

Do you have a topic which you think is important and you would like the MyMelanoma team to look into it? If so please send us an e-mail at and we can discuss. 

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