Merkel Cell Carcinoma FAQs
What is Merkel cell carcinoma?
Also known as neuroendocrine carcinoma of the skin, Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare type of skin cancer. It occurs in the Merkel cells, which are found at the base of the epidermis, the skin’s outermost layer.
It usually appears as flesh-colored or bluish-red nodules on the face, head, or neck. This form of skin cancer metastasizes quickly. It also has a high incidence of recurring.
What causes Merkel cell carcinoma?
The causes of Merkel cell carcinoma are not fully understood. The Merkel cells are connected to the nerve endings in the skin that are responsible for the sense of touch. Recent research points to a common virus that likely plays a role in development of this rare skin cancer, the Merkel cell polyomavirus. This virus lives on the skin and doesn’t have any symptoms and is very common. It’s not clear why it sometimes may cause this rare skin cancer.
These are thought to be the risk factors for Merkel cell carcinoma:
- Excessive UV exposure
- A weakened immune system
- History of other skin cancers
- Being over age 50
- Light skin color
What are the symptoms of Merkel cell carcinoma?
The first sign of Merkel cell carcinoma in most cases is a fast-growing bump on the skin. This is called a nodule, or tumor, and it can be either skin-colored or can be in shades of red, blue, or purple. They are most common in areas exposed to sun, but can develop elsewhere.
How is Merkel cell carcinoma treated?
Excision is the first treatment option for Merkel cell carcinoma. The tumor along with a border of normal skin is removed. This may be done with a standard scalpel excision or it may be done with Mohs surgery to limit the amount of healthy tissue removed and manage future scarring.
If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, they will be removed in what is called lymph node dissection.
If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the treatments may include radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or chemotherapy.
What is the cure rate of Merkel cell carcinoma?
As with melanoma, early diagnosis of Merkel cell carcinoma is imperative to increase the patient’s odds of successful treatment.
The five-year survival rate for localized Merkel cell carcinoma, meaning it has not spread, is 78%. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other nearby structures, the five-year survival rate is 51%. If it has spread to distant organs or parts of the body, the five-year survival rate is just 17%