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Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare skin cancer that is thought to arise from cells in the epidermis or ones associated with nerve endings that sense touch. Usually, the cancer originates in areas of the body that are frequently exposed to natural or artificial sunlight, such as the head neck, trunk, arms and legs. Additionally, a weakened immune system can increase the risk of developing Merkel cell carcinoma.

How is it detected?

Merkel cell carcinoma often presents as a painless, purplish nodule on the skin in exposed areas. It can grow quickly at times, and is sometimes mistaken for a cyst. The most important first step to take is to see a dermatologist and get a biopsy. The only way to diagnose Merkel cell carcinoma is for a pathologist to look at the cells under the microscope.

While it is true that Merkel cell carcinoma has a risk for metastasis that is higher than for basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas of the skin, it is important to remember that there are many ways to treat it even when it has spread. Often the first step will be to remove the tumor on the skin and to check for metastatic disease. Because of this higher risk for metastasis, sentinel lymph node biopsy is typically performed to try to identify whether the cancerous cells have spread through lymph channels to the nearby lymph nodes. If the cancer has spread, surgery or radiation therapy or a combination of both can be used, because Merkel cell carcinoma can respond very well to radiation. If there are metastases beyond the lymph nodes to other organs, immunotherapy is typically used to stimulate the body’s own immune system to destroy the cancer cells.

If you have been diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma and would like more information about how it spreads and what treatment options there are, you can request an appointment with a specialist in the skin cancer (Cutaneous) program at Moffitt Cancer Center. At Moffitt, we offer a complete range of Merkel cell carcinoma treatment. To provide each patient with an individualized treatment plan, our oncologists collaborate as a multispecialty team. Complex cases or those that have spread beyond the skin are discussed at a multidisciplinary tumor board to make evidence-based recommendations for the best possible options. To request an appointment, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online.