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Merkel cell carcinoma is an uncommon form of skin cancer that occurs when Merkel cells grow out of control. Merkel cells are believed to be a type of skin neuroendocrine cells because they share common features with both nerve cells and endocrine cells. These cells are found in the outer layer of the epidermis and act as receptors for the sense of touch. Merkel cell tumors typically appear as firm lumps on the skin, usually red, pink or purple in color.

What causes Merkel cell carcinoma?

Because Merkel cell carcinoma can be quicker to spread and more difficult to treat than other types of skin cancer, there are many questions surrounding the causes of this malignancy – particularly whether it can be caused by other, less serious types of skin cancer. Other types of skin cancer do not lead to Merkel cell carcinoma, but this malignancy does share a number of causes with other forms of skin cancer.

UV exposure

Similar to other types of skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma is believed to be caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays, both natural and artificial. Merkel cell carcinoma often develops in parts of the skin that are frequently exposed to UV rays, such as the face and neck. Researchers are still learning about the process through which UV-damaged skin cells become cancerous.

Merkel cell polyomavirus

Another potential cause of Merkel cell carcinoma is infection with the Merkel call polyomavirus, which has been found in more than 80 percent of all Merkel cell carcinomas. Some experts believe that the virus causes genetic mutations that can cause cancer to develop when the body’s immune system is compromised. However, it is important to note that many people carry the virus and never develop cancer.

At Moffitt Cancer Center, our research team works tirelessly to understand more about Merkel cell carcinoma, its causes and the treatments that are most effective. In fact, our dedication to advancing cancer research and treatment has resulted in our prestigious designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute.

To speak with a Moffitt physician about your Merkel cell carcinoma, request an appointment by submitting a new patient registration form online or calling 1-888-663-3488. Referrals are not required to request a consultation.