What is Merkel cell skin cancer?

Merkel cell is a rare and an aggressive form of skin cancer, medical officials say.

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Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare skin cancer that appears as “a flesh-colored or bluish-red nodule” either on your face, head or neck, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is also called neuroendocrine carcinoma of the skin.

Jimmy Buffett was battling the cancer for the last four years at the time of his death, according to a statement on the singer-songwriter’s website.

Merkel cell carcinoma starts when cells in skin, which are called Merkel cells, grow out of control, the American Cancer Society says. It tends to grow quickly and (is) hard to treat if it grows “beyond the skin.”

Merkel cells are found mostly in the base of the top layer of the skin, the American Cancer Society says. They share some features with other cells including nerve cells and hormone-making cells. Merkel cells are “very close to nerve endings in the skin” that can sense light touch.

How is it diagnosed?

It is diagnosed with a skin biopsy and a physical exam, the Mayo Clinic said. The biopsy is where a sample of “suspicious skin” is removed to see if there are signs of cancer.

Another test, called a sentinel node biopsy, is a procedure that tries to determine if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes which is done by injecting a dye into the cancer, Mayo Clinic said. A CT and a PET scan may also be done.

Risk factors

This type of cancer usually develops in older people, the Mayo Clinic said. It comes from long-term sun exposure or a weak immune system.

Other risk factors include light skin color and having a history of other skin cancers. Men are also more likely to get Merkel cell skin cancer than women, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.


Sunlight is not a proven cause of Merkel cell skin cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic, but it is a risk factor for the disease. It is recommended to reduce sun exposure, like not going outside during the hottest time of the day -- between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is recommended to move your outdoor activities to earlier in the day and to keep your skin and eyes covered. Use sunscreen often with an SPF of 30 or higher. Make sure to monitor any changes to a mole, freckle or bump and consult with your doctor.


Treatment options depend on prognosis and what stage the cancer is, the National Cancer Institute says.

Possible other treatments include surgery and radiation therapy, the Mayo Clinic says. Next would be immunotherapy and then chemotherapy.

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