Merkel Cell Carcinoma is a Rare and Potentially Aggressive Form of Skin Cancer that Arises in the Cells on the Outer Layer of Skin.


About Merkel Cell Cancer

They’re called Merkel cells and make up only a small percentage of skin cells. Though the cancer can grow and spread rapidly, it is generally treatable and often curable if caught in the early stages.

Merkel cell carcinoma is rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of total skin cancer diagnoses, though the number of patients diagnosed with the disease is thought to have tripled over the past two decades.

What causes merkel cell cancer?

the causes of Merkel cell cancer are not certain. We do know that UV exposure is a major risk factor so avoiding the sun during peak times (10 AM – 4 PM). A weakened immune system (solid organ transplant, HIV, chronic immune-suppression drugs) and older patients are at higher risk as well. There is also a common skin virus, called Merkel polyomavirus, that is found in approximately 80% of tested tumors but it is not know if this causes MCC.

Is merkel cell cancer hereditary?

No genetic link has been found to increase ones risk of of developing Merkel cell carcinoma.

What are merkel cell carcinoma symptoms?

 Merkel cell cancers often present as a painless growth on the skin that can grow rapidly. Most of these appear on sun exposed skin. The growths are often flesh toned but can be many difference colors and can vary in size.

Risk Factors

Risk Factors of Merkel Cell Carcinoma

  • Heavily sun-exposed skin (UV light exposure)
  • Weakened immune systems (organ transplant patients and HIV patients)
  • Infection with Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV)
  • Advanced age
  • Men are 2-times more likely to have it compared with women

How is Merkel Cell Carcinoma Diagnosed?

If you’ve been diagnosed with Merkel Cell Carcinoma, your treatment will require the expertise of a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists. The team may include dermatology, surgical oncology, radiation oncology, medical oncology, plastic surgery, pathology and nursing. At the Saint John’s Cancer Institute, we are fortunate to have access to all the required specialists. Our team will determine the best course of treatment and overall management for you.


Merkel Cell Carcinoma Treatment

Treatment will usually include surgery to remove the merkel cell tumor along with a biopsy of a lymph node (sentinel lymph node biopsy) to see if the cancer has spread. Radiologic scans may also be recommended prior to surgery. The surgery can almost always be performed on an outpatient basis. Radiation therapy to the skin and/or lymph nodes may also be indicated for patients who have high-risk lesions. Patients whose merkel cell cancer has spread beyond their lymph nodes into their organs are likely to require other medical treatments.

For Merkel Cell Carcinoma that has spread, but is still confined within the leg or arm, we may recommend local immunotherapies or isolated regional perfusion or infusion.

When to see a provider

Submit an online appointment request or call  310-829-8781 if you observe changes in the appearance of your skin, such as finding a new growth, a change to a previous growth, or a recurring sore.