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Merkel cell carcinoma risk factors are behaviors, exposures, conditions and characteristics that can increase an individual’s likelihood of developing this relatively rare type of skin cancer. Most risk factors are identified through extensive research studies, and more is being learned every day. Even so, it is impossible to predict whether a person will develop cancer with any degree of certainty. Many people have one or more risk factors and never develop cancer, while others who are diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma have no known risk factors.

Some of the factors that are believed to increase an individual’s risk of developing Merkel cell carcinoma include:

  • Excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light – UV light can damage the DNA in skins cells. In most cases, Merkel cell carcinoma develops in areas of skin that are frequently exposed to UV rays from natural sources (the sun) or artificial sources (tanning beds and psoriasis treatments that incorporate the use of UV light).
  • A history of other types of skin cancer – The development of Merkel cell carcinoma is associated with other skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
  • A weakened immune system – The immune system helps to protect the body from viruses and fight off diseases, including cancer. An HIV infection, certain lymphomas, drugs that suppress the body’s immune response and other factors that weaken the immune system can reduce its effectiveness.
  • Light skin color – Darker skin is believed to offer a degree of protection against damaging UV light.
  • Older age – While Merkel cell carcinoma can occur at any age, it is diagnosed most often in individuals who are age 50 or older.

Whether or not an individual has one or more Merkel cell carcinoma risk factors, it’s important to always be vigilant for signs of skin cancer. Experts suggest monthly self-examinations to look for any changes or abnormalities, as well as professional skin cancer screenings performed periodically. Moffitt Cancer Center offers the Mole Patrol®, a mobile program that provides free screening services, education and sunscreen samples throughout the year.

If you’d like to learn more about Merkel cell carcinoma risk factors, the experts at Moffitt can provide detailed information and create an individualized risk profile for you. Call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. We see patients with and without referrals.


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