Health Care

Skin Deep: What is Merkel Cell Carcinoma?

Older couple lounging in beach chairs while on the beach.

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“Wrinkles will only go where the smiles have been.” –Jimmy Buffett

Evoking the sounds and images of fun in the sun and laidback summer days in the tropics, Jimmy Buffett’s music has been a dependable, upbeat backdrop of pool parties, beach bashes and barbecues since the 1970s. As he seemed to embody the carefree spirit he put into song, it comes as no surprise that his recent passing broke the hearts of his many fans worldwide.

It’s been confirmed that Mr. Buffett succumbed to Merkel cell carcinoma — a rare, fast-growing skin cancer that’s diagnosed in less than 3,000 Americans each year. The illness was named for Friedrich Merkel, a German scientist who first described this type of cell in 1875.

Buffett, who was 76, lived with the deadly skin cancer for four years. His death followed a series of canceled concerts and hospitalizations that began in May of this year as his health rapidly declined.

About Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Merkel cells are thought to be a kind of neuroendocrine cell found at the base of the epidermis (the skin’s surface). They’re close to the nerve endings in the skin that allow you to feel a light touch.

Because Merkel cell carcinoma is an aggressive cancer that grows and spreads quickly, a prompt diagnosis along with faster treatment can save your life if you notice any symptoms.

What Causes Merkel Cell Carcinoma?

Merkel cell carcinoma occurs when something causes the cells to grow out of control. While scientists don’t fully understand what causes Merkel cell carcinoma, they believe it’s connected to UV light exposure, a weakened immune system due to disease or age and the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV), which is found in nearly all the tumors of this cancer type. Discovered in 2008, nearly everyone contracts MCV in childhood without symptoms.

As Jimmy Buffett so often sang about, swimming and relaxing in the sun with friends brings much joy. But it can also be dangerous without protection. In order to keep the joyful parts of being in the sun without the sorrow of developing cancer later, we encourage everyone to practice sun safety and follow our tips for wearing sunscreen. Skin cancer is the most common, and the most preventable, cancer in the United States.

Symptoms of Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Merkel cell carcinoma typically shows up on a person’s face or neck or in other areas that are often exposed to the sun, like the arm. It can also be found in places like inside the nose or esophagus.

It looks like a raised red or purple lump or pimple, unlike melanoma, another serious form of skin cancer that shows up as a dark spot.

Merkel cell carcinoma is often mistaken for a cyst; however, cysts can be painful while Merkel cell spots don’t typically cause discomfort.

Seek prompt medical attention if you notice the following symptoms:

  • A growing skin sore
  • A stye or cyst
  • Bleeding at the sore’s site
  • Fast-growing skin mass
  • Firm, dome-shaped growth
  • Spot grows or changes rapidly
  • Spot is red, pink or purple
  • Tender or itchy to the touch, but not necessarily painful

Leading-Edge Skin Cancer Treatment

By focusing on all three tiers of skin cancer treatment — surgery, radiation and chemotherapy — our world-class team can help you heal. Your multi-disciplinary, highly specialized oncology team will give you solid support with leading-edge procedures, treatments and therapies that include:

  • Cryosurgery
  • Electrosurgery
  • Excisional Surgery
  • Laser Surgery
  • Mohs Micrographic Surgery
  • Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)
  • Topical Medications

Healing for the Body, Mind and Spirit

You are not alone. Our dedicated team of oncologists will consult with you every step of the way, so you'll always feel informed about your progress. Together, we'll strive for full healing, recovery and whole health.

If you have concerns about Merkel cell carcinoma or show signs of skin cancer, visit us here. You deserve to feel whole.

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