Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare form of skin cancer that grows and spreads rapidly. The aggressive skin cancer typically occurs in fair skinned adults over the age of 50 and is much more prevalent in men.
The exact cause of Merkel cell carcinoma is not clear but a virus is thought to play a role. The Merkel cell polyomavirus can be found in a substantial number of the tumors and studies are continuing to learn more about the virus and its connection with this disease.
Merkel cells are located in the skin where they act primarily as touch receptors. The rare Merkel cell carcinoma starts as a bump or hard patch and is often mistaken for a pimple, bug bite or cyst. The firm lump may be pink, red, blue or violet in color and quickly grows.
Most Merkel cell carcinomas develop on skin that has been exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck or eyelid, but the growths can occur anywhere on the body. Your dermatologist should immediately examine any suspicious lesion, since outcomes are much better with early treatment.
A skin biopsy will be done to confirm the diagnosis and treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Local lesions are those confined to the skin, nodal tumors involve the skin and lymph nodes and metastatic Merkel cell cancers are those that have spread beyond the skin and lymph nodes to other parts of the body.
Treatment options for Merkel cell carcinoma include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of the three. Immunotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy drugs are also being used.
Merkel cell carcinoma is rare, but the aggressiveness of the cancer requires immediate treatment. The cancer is prone to reappear, so skin self-exams and sun protection are important for those who have been diagnosed and treated for the condition.