Merkel Cell Carcinoma


In the world of skin cancer, melanoma tends to be the scariest word you can hear and with good reason — it is often deadly. But another, potentially more dangerous, type of skin cancer is on the rise and it has doctors concerned, according to an article in Plastic Surgery Practice.

“Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare type of skin cancer that may initially resemble a harmless mole, but in fact is very aggressive, can spread throughout the body, and is potentially fatal,” Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai in New York City, tells Allure.

According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, its “rare” status is about to become a thing of the past. Currently, there are 2,488 cases of Merkel cell cancer diagnosed in the United States each year, but researchers at the University of Washington predict that will jump to 3,284 cases by 2025.

To put it in perspective, they estimate that cases of Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) are rising six times faster than other types of skin cancers and twice as fast as melanoma.

“Over the past 30 years, we have seen a rise in Merkel cell cancers that has been driven by many things, including a better ability to diagnose the cancer, an increase in the number of people that have had extensive sun exposure and are at higher risk, and an increase in the number of people over the age of 50 who are at higher risk of MCC,” Kelly Paulson, senior fellow in oncology and hematology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and lead author on the study, tells Allure.

The rise is concerning for two major reasons: First, Merkel cell cancers are incredibly aggressive, meaning they’re more likely to metastasize and harder to cure. “The most common skin cancers — basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer — can usually be cured with surgery and only rarely spread beyond the skin,” explains Paulson. “However, melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma are very likely to spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.”

The second reason to be concerned is that Merkel cell cancers have a high risk of recurrence, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Together, these two factors make Merkel cell cancers even deadlier than melanoma. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, Merkel cell cancers kill about one in three patients, compared to one in nine patients who die from melanoma. The study findings make early detection and treatment of Merkel cell carcinoma a top priority. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

While signs of skin cancer, including melanoma, are relatively easy to recognize, Merkel cell cancers are more likely to fly under the radar. “Merkel cell cancer usually shows up as a rapidly growing, often symmetrical, red or purple, painless nodule or bump,” says Paulson. Even doctors have trouble diagnosing it until it’s actually biopsied.

Some people are at higher risk than others for developing Merkel cell carcinoma. If you’re over 50, have extremely fair skin or a health a condition that causes immune suppression, consider this your excuse to be extra vigilant about regular skin checks.

It’s also important to note, “rates of MCC are rising rapidly in black and Hispanic populations,” says Paulson. “Recent research from other groups has shown black individuals diagnosed with MCC are three times more likely to die, often because it is diagnosed later at more advanced stages.”

Zeichner said no matter your age or skin tone, experts can’t stress enough how important it is to be diligent about safe sun practices.

“Protect yourself from the sun. Look at your skin in the mirror. Get an annual body check from a dermatologist,” Zeichner emphasizes. “If you see a new or changing spot, whether it is brown or pink, get it checked out right away because it can save your life.”

“This is very scary; tumor is very hard to detect, very fast progressing and in most patients discovered very late,” Zoran Potparic. MD, said commenting about the article.  “I hope we will find the way how to better screen patients, detect this problem earlier and have adequate chemotherapy to help treatment in advanced stages.” VTN


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Camden Lawless

Camden Lawless