What is Merkel cell carcinoma?

Merkel cell carcinoma, also called neuroendocrine carcinoma of the skin or trabecular cancer, is a rare type of skin cancer with about 2,500 cases diagnosed each year.

Medical illustration of merkel cell anatomy.

The disease occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells form within the Merkel cells, which are located in the deepest part of the epidermis (the skin’s upper layer) close to the nerve endings that give us the sense of touch.

This type of skin cancer can appear as a single, painless bump on sun-exposed skin like on the head, neck, arms, legs and midsection.

Once formed, Merkel cell carcinoma may spread quickly, usually to the lymph nodes first, then to other areas on the skin or even other parts of the body, like the lungs, bones, brain or other organs.

The skin cancer specialists at the Multidisciplinary Skin Cancer Clinic at Miami Cancer Institute combine world-recognized medical expertise, innovation and compassionate care to detect and treat your specific cancer, creating precise, personalized treatment plans that incorporate groundbreaking discoveries, collaborations with other world-renowned cancer researchers, and the best individualized treatment just for you.

What are the risk factors for Merkel cell carcinoma?

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease. Having risk factors, however, does not necessarily mean you will get cancer, so it’s important to know your personal risk factors and discuss any concerns with your doctor.

The skin is the largest organ of the body, and Merkel cell carcinoma risk factors can be either environmental and/or genetic. For example, those who have had long-term exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds, or those who have a disease that has weakened the immune system (like HIV) may be at a higher risk for developing the disease.

Other risk factors include:

  • Having other diseases (like leukemia, HIV) or taking drugs that slow down your immune system (such as those prescribed after a transplant)
  • Being male, older than 50 years of age or white

While people with light skin, hair and eyes have a higher risk for sun-related skin cancers, there are also risk factors for those of Hispanic, African-American and other descents.

Prevention

Preventing or reducing your risk for Merkel cell carcinoma can sometimes involve changing lifestyle behaviors and certain environmental exposures, such as over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds.

Preventive measures also include:

  • Using sunscreen year-round, SPF 30 or higher, with both UVA and UVB protection regardless of how light or dark your skin is naturally
  • Avoiding sun exposure mid-day when the sun’s rays are strongest (this is usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.)
  • Wearing protective clothing that covers your neck, head and eyes
  • Avoiding indoor tanning
  • Taking careful precautions to limit occupational exposure to toxic substances
  • Examining your skin, head to toe, every month

As with any type of cancer prevention, the skin cancer specialists at Miami Cancer Institute recommend eating a healthful diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Our experts also recommend knowing and understanding your personal risk factors so that you can take appropriate steps to prevent or reduce your risk for Merkel cell carcinoma.

There’s a lot of excitement about new options to treat neuroendocrine tumors like Merkel cell carcinoma.
Ramon Jimenez, M.D.
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