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Tests, Treatments and Therapies for Melanoma at the University of Colorado Cancer Center

No two people – or melanoma cases – are alike. As a leader in cancer research, we’re committed to using minimally invasive approaches to diagnose and treat this disease. 

To partner with our team of melanoma experts and create your individual treatment plan, call (720) 848-0300 to make an appointment today.

Staging and Detection

Once a cancer has been diagnosed, it is very important to know where the cancer may have spread. This is the “stage” of the cancer. The lower the number, the less it has spread. Knowing the stage allows your medical team to determine the best possible treatment plan for you.

Tests and Procedures

Biopsy – All or part of the abnormal-looking growth is removed from the skin and viewed under a microscope by an expert skin pathologist to see if cancer cells are present.


CT scan (computed tomography) – An X-ray procedure that creates detailed, highly accurate cross-sectional body images.


Dermoscopy – A technique for viewing skin lesions to distinguish accurately between suspicious moles and other pigmented lesions. A drop of mineral oil is placed on the lesion to reduce light reflection and make the skin more translucent.


Epiluminescence microscopy – A technique in which the doctor can view the lesion down to the dermo-epidermal junction, the area where melanomas usually develop and that is not visible to the naked eye.


Excisional biopsy – A scalpel is used to remove the entire growth.


Lymphoscinitgraphy plus sentinel node biopsy – A method used to identify the sentinel lymph node (the first draining lymph node near a tumor). A radioactive substance that can be taken up by lymph nodes is injected at the site of the tumor, and a doctor follows the movement of this substance on a computer screen. Once the lymph nodes that have taken up the substance are identified, they can be removed and examined to see if they contain tumor cells.


Mole Mapping – A valuable tool that helps determine which moles need to be removed. A full-body photograph is taken and analyzed digitally to identify mole locations and different features in order to rate a mole’s potential. These images also are used to detect new moles and subtle changes in existing moles from visit to visit.


MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging) – An imaging technique that provides detailed images of body structures. It uses a radio waves and a powerful magnet linked to a computer. These pictures can show the differences between normal and diseased tissues.


PET scan (positron emission tomography) – An imaging test used most often to detect cancer and to examine the effects of cancer therapy. Patients are injected with a radioactive substance before undergoing the scan. Cancerous tissue will accumulate more of the substance and appear brighter than normal tissue on the PET images. This test can be performed simultaneously with a CT scan on a special machine to provide detailed information as to the cancer’s exact location.


Punch biopsy – A special instrument called a punch is used to remove a circle of tissue from the abnormal-looking growth.


Skin examination – A doctor or nurse checks the skin for bumps or spots that look abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture.

Treatments & Therapies

Treatment for melanoma varies greatly from person to person. You and your team may choose any combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or new immunotherapy to treat or control your cancer, depending on your needs.


Depending on the skin cancer’s location and severity, different types of surgery may be used to remove it. The surgeon removes the tumor and some normal tissue around it to make sure all the cancer cells are removed. Lymph nodes near the tumor may be removed because cancer can spread through the lymphatic system.


Cryosurgery – A treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue. It is also called cryotherapy.


Dermabrasion – Removal of the top layer of skin using a rotating wheel or small particles to rub away skin cells.


Electrodesiccation and curettage – The tumor is cut from the skin with a curette (a sharp, spoon-shaped tool). A needle-shaped electrode is then used to treat the area with an electric current that stops the bleeding and destroys cancer cells that remain around the edge of the wound. The process may be repeated one to three times during the surgery to remove all of the cancer.


Laser surgery – A surgical procedure that uses a laser beam (a narrow beam of intense light) as a knife to make bloodless cuts in tissue or to remove a surface lesion such as a tumor.


Mohs micrographic surgery – The most precise method of removing skin cancer, the tumor is cut from the skin in thin layers. During surgery, the edges of the tumor and each layer of tumor removed are viewed through a microscope to check for cancer cells. Layers continue to be removed until no more cancer cells are seen. The procedure is especially effective in treating cancers of the face and other cosmetically sensitive areas, because it can eliminate virtually all the cancer cell while causing minimal damage to the surrounding normal skin. It also is ideal for the removal of recurrent skin cancers.


Shave excision – The abnormal area is shaved off the surface of the skin with a small blade.


Simple excision – The tumor is cut from the skin along with some of the normal skin around it.


Chemotherapy involves using drugs to slow down, damage or kill cancer cells. It may involve single drugs or combinations of drugs taken intravenously or by mouth. Chemotherapy cycles often last three or four weeks. Your team may also prescribe drugs and other treatments (like those from integrative medicine) to reduce or eliminate chemotherapy’s side effects.

Radiation Therapy ("Radiotherapy")

Radiation therapy involves using X-rays and other types of medical radiation. Aimed at specific parts of the body, it is used to kill cancer cells, prevent cancer cells from developing or recurring, and relieve many of the symptoms caused by cancer. It can be used together with chemotherapy for certain cancers (this is called “chemo-radiotherapy”).

Targeted Therapies

Targeted therapies are anti-cancer drugs or other substances that directly interfere with cancer growth on a molecular level. They may be taken (with few side effects) on their own or in combination with standard chemotherapy. Anti-cancer drug treatments also help reduce or eliminate side effects associated with chemotherapy.

Photodynamic Therapy

Treatment that uses a drug and a certain type of laser light to kill cancer cells. A drug that is not active until it is exposed to light is injected into a vein. The drug collects more in cancer cells than in normal cells. To treat skin cancer, laser light is shined onto the skin to activate the drug, which then kills the cancer cells. Photodynamic therapy causes little damage to healthy tissue.

Clinical Trials

Your medical team may also recommend that you participate in a clinical trial.

The University of Colorado Hospital conducts hundreds of clinical trials in an ongoing effort to discover and deliver more effective treatments. They may offer access to drugs, vaccines and new kinds of treatment years before they are widely available.

Other therapies being tested through clinical trials:

  • Biologic therapy (biotherapy or immunotherapy) – These are treatments that join with the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances – some made by the body, some made in a laboratory – help boost, direct or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer.
  • Targeted therapy – This treatment uses small molecules to block cell-signaling pathways that are hyperactive in melanoma cells.
  • Anti-angiogenesis – This method uses agents that block tumors from forming new blood vessels that they need in order to grow.

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