Merkel cell carcinoma is rare and can be deadly
A rare form of skin cancer is now in the news, as it took the life of Jimmy Buffett. Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is so rare that only 2,500 people a year are diagnosed with it in the U.S.
In my twenty-plus years as a practicing dermatologist, I have only had three patients with Merkel cell carcinoma. As diagnosis techniques have improved, cases of Merkel cell have tripled in the last few decades.
Compared to melanoma, Merkel cell cancer is much more likely to be fatal, so it is important for people to be aware of it. Merkel cell carcinoma is a highly aggressive and often deadly type of skin cancer, growing quickly, often spreading to nearby lymph nodes and then to other organs.
This photo is of a Merkel cell carcinoma on the nose. It can look like an inconspicuous pink or red bump. It can easily be mistaken for a pimple or a cyst. The lesions are often painless. Merkel cells are found in the epidermis (outermost layer of skin) and function mainly as touch receptors.
Merkel cell carcinoma is usually found on the face, head or neck but can appear in other areas. See more photos of Merkel cell carcinoma.
Risk factors for Merkel cell carcinoma
The exact cause is unknown, but there are many risk factors:
- Long-term, unprotected sun exposure
- Fair skin color
- Age – people over 40
- Men get it more often than women
- Prior history of skin cancer
- Weakened immune system
While you may have some of the risk factors above, there is one you can definitely mitigate. It’s important for everyone to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful UV rays. I cannot stress enough a comprehensive sun protection plan that includes seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
Right now, it does not appear that Merkel cell is hereditary, but it is associated with a virus. The Merkel cell polyomavirus, which is quite common, is often found on normal human skin and surfaces that are frequently touched. Most people don’t develop MCC after exposure to the virus, but if someone’s immune system is not functioning well due to age or other factors, that person may be more likely to develop MCC after encountering the virus.
Like other skin cancers, Merkel cell carcinoma has the best prognosis when detected early, while the disease can be treated successfully in its early stages because it is a highly aggressive cancer that grows quickly and metastasizes. Unfortunately, one in three patients with this skin cancer die from it. However, the immunotherapy treatments that have emerged over the last few years have improved survival rates.
If you notice a new, unusual growth, especially one that looks different from the other spots on your skin or one that is growing quickly, see me for a diagnosis. Call or text 954-251-0367 to make an appointment.
See A Triple Board Certified Dermatologist
Skin cancer should be treated as soon as possible. Dr. Cynthia Golomb is widely considered one of the top dermatologists in Hallandale Beach. She welcomes patients for skin cancer treatment from Aventura, Sunny Isles Beach, North Miami Beach, Golden Beach, Pembroke Pines and Hollywood, Fl.
Dr. Golomb is triple board certified in Dermatology, Dermatopathology, and Micrographic Dermatologic Surgery (Mohs). Call or text 954-251-0367 to make an appointment.