Melanoma Center Opens at Columbia University Medical Center

Sole Program in New York to Offer Comprehensive Diagnosis and Treatment of Melanoma

Jun 5, 2003


Although May is National Melanoma and Skin Cancer Detection Month, melanoma is a prominent concern at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital throughout the year. Its newly launched Melanoma Center at Columbia University Medical Center, the only program of its kind in New York City, provides diagnosis and treatment of this most common and one of the most serious of all cancers.

"Although the public's consciousness has been raised about skin cancer, too many people still don't realize the seriousness of the disease, especially if it's melanoma," notes Howard L. Kaufman, MD, co-director of the Melanoma Center and vice chairman of surgical oncology at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons. "And if you're diagnosed with melanoma, it can often be a challenge to find comprehensive care in one setting," he adds.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 54,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with melanoma this year; about 7,600 will die of the disease. Although melanoma accounts for only about 4 percent of skin cancer cases, it's responsible for 79 percent of skin cancer deaths. Over the past two decades, there has been a seven percent increase in the incidence of melanoma each year. The percentage of people who develop melanoma has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Moreover, during the past 10 years, the number of cases of melanoma has increased more rapidly than that of any other cancer.

There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. While the majority of skin cancers are mostly of the first two types, those that are melanomas are the most serious because of their ability to spread or metastasize to other parts of the body, especially the lungs and the liver. When melanoma is diagnosed at an early state, it usually can be cured, but when the diagnosis is made at a later stage, melanoma is more likely to metastasize and cause death.

"Because of the nature of melanoma, patients may need coordinated care from a variety of healthcare providers. They may need very specialized surgery, gamma knife radiation or external beam radiation. Columbia University Medical Center's melanoma center is comprised of a multidisciplinary team who respond to those needs. Our patients have access to a number of clinical trials that explore the newest options in melanoma therapy," explains Desiree Ratner M.D., co-director of the Melanoma Center and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

"An integral part of our medical team is our nursing staff. All of our nurses are specially trained and dedicated to the treatment of melanoma," points out Dr. Kaufman.

In addition to experts in dermatology, the Center's staff consists of nationally recognized specialists in surgical oncology, medical oncology, radiation oncology, dermatologic surgery, head and neck surgery, plastic and reconstructive surgery, and dermatopathology. Treatment strategies at the Center include MoleMap (full body scan) technology for high-risk patients, excisional surgery, Mohs surgery, sentinel node biopsy, radiation therapy, gamma knife surgery, interferon therapy, interleukin-2 (IL-2) therapy, tumor vaccines and chemotherapy. The Ludwig Institute, a large non-profit cancer research institute, recently established a melanoma laboratory within the Melanoma Center at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and is providing access to new vaccines for patients at our center.

"Central to our mission to deliver is the development of new strategies, such as the use of IL-2, a powerful biologic agent that acts to stimulate the immune system to combat melanoma, and is one of the only two agents approved for the treatment of melanoma in the last 20 years. We're continuing to look into new research areas in order to improve the prognosis of patients with this malignancy. We believe that our efforts at screening for melanoma in order to detect it early — when it's most curable — and our comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to treatment are combining to effectively decrease the mortality and morbidity associated with melanoma and to fill a much needed gap in the treatment of these patients," concludes Dr. Kaufman.

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