Background: Although more than 90% of the morbidity and mortality from localized cutaneous melanoma occurs in the first decade after initial surgical treatment, melanoma can recur after a 10-year disease-free interval (DFI) with fatal consequences. We reviewed our melanoma data base of more than 8500 prospectively acquired patients to identify clinicopathological factors that affect the type, rate of occurrence, and outcome of disease recurring 10 years or more after surgical treatment of primary cutaneous melanoma.
Methods: From 1971 to 1997, 1907 melanoma patients treated at our cancer center reached or presented with a DFI of 10 years or more after surgical treatment of clinically localized melanoma. Of these, 217 (11%) patients had recurrences (mean DFI, 182 months). The sites of recurrence were local/in-transit in 26 (12%) patients, regional lymph nodes in 101 (47%) patients, and distant sites in 90 (41%) patients.
Results: Univariate and multivariate analysis, using patient age and sex, type of initial treatment, and the site, Breslow thickness, and Clark level of the initial tumor, showed that the type of treatment for the primary tumor was a significant (P = .0005) prognostic factor in the development of late nodal recurrence. Of the 217 patients who had recurrences, 172 (79%) had undergone wide local excision for their primary melanoma, and 45 (21%) had undergone wide local excision plus elective lymph node dissection (ELND). The rates of nodal recurrence were 53% (92 of 172) and 20% (9 of 45), respectively, a significant (P = .0001) difference. When all patients with a DFI of 10 years or more were stratified by type of initial treatment, the ELND group demonstrated a significant improvement in disease-free survival and overall survival.
Conclusions: The risk of late-recurring nodal disease increases and the chance of long-term survival decreases when wide local excision is performed without ELND. With the advent of sentinel lymphadenectomy, ELND can be selectively performed only for those nodal basins with occult tumor cells, thereby decreasing operative morbidity but allowing identification and early removal of nodal micrometastases.