Shining a Light on Skin Cancer: The Rare Carcinoma That’s Gaining New Attention

Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer has gained recent attention after the passing of iconic musician Jimmy Buffett. In September 2023, the Margaritaville singer lost his battle with Merkel cell carcinoma, bringing this aggressive disease into the spotlight and prompting a deeper dive into its risk factors and preventative measures. 

What is Merkel Cell Carcinoma? 

Merkel cell carcinoma originates in Merkel cells, which are situated in the top layer of the skin, making it more prevalent to areas exposed to sunlight, like the face, neck, and arms. Dr. Christopher Mancuso at Nashua Dermatology Associates says the aggressive nature of this disease makes it particularly dangerous. “Merkel cell spreads faster than other skin cancers so there is more of an urgency when we’re treating it.” Not only is Merkel cell more aggressive, but it also looks different than other melanomas. It’s usually more reddish-purple in color and can appear like a blood vessel growth. 

Skin CancerWho’s at Risk? 

As with other skin cancers, we know exposure to sunlight can put people at risk for Merkel cell carcinoma, however there are other factors to consider. “Sun is related but it’s not the only cause,” explains Dr. Mancuso. “We think there may even be a virus that might have a role to play in the diagnosis.” Merkel Cell Polyomavirus (MCV) is thought to be a factor in about 80% of all Merkel cell cases.  

Other risk factors are age and gender. Dr. Mancuso says this cancer is more common in adults over the age of 50 and it tends to affect men more frequently than women. Individuals with a compromised immune system, such as organ transplant recipients or those with conditions like HIV/AIDS, are also at a higher risk of developing Merkel cell carcinoma. 

Can It Be Prevented? 

While Merkel cell may not be entirely preventable, certain measures can be taken to help reduce the risk. Dr. Mancuso recommends limiting your time in the sun, not only in the summer but during the cooler months as well. “You absolutely should be wearing sunscreen year-round,” he shares. “Even if it’s a particularly cloudy or rainy day, there’s only about a 10% reduction in sun exposure on those days so you’re still getting sun even if you don’t feel its effects.” 

He also recommends regular skin checks, both by a dermatologist and self-examinations. If you notice any new growths or changes on the skin, Dr. Mancuso says it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional. “If something looks different, if it’s changing or growing within weeks to months, that’s unusual and you should get it looked at sooner rather than later.” 

Mancuso,-Chris.jpgChristopher Mancuso, DO practices at Nashua Dermatology Associates. He is available for appointments at Pelham Medical Center on Mondays.



Gomes, L. L. A. (2023, October 16). Rare and often aggressive, Merkel cell cancer is best caught early. Harvard Health.

Posted: 5/1/2024