Merkel Cell Carcinoma: What is it? Arnot doctor explains rare and aggressive skin cancer
(Image Courtesy of: AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
HORSEHEADS, N.Y. (WENY) -- Legendary singer and icon Jimmy Buffet passed away last week from a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer. Buffet had Merkel Cell Carcinoma or Merkel Cell Cancer, which is a type of skin cancer, where Merkel cells in the skin turn cancerous and cause a growth, often on the face, head, or neck.
"It's a type of skin cancer and the Merkel cell is a type of cell in the skin that's responsible for the sensation of touch in the skin," said Director of the Department of Dermatology with Arnot Health, Dr. Kimberly Silvers, PhD.
Buffet battled the rare skin cancer for four years. According to Dr. Silvers, the cancer can be hard to detect in its early stages.
"It can just start like a red pimple. Some people think it's a bug bite, acne, or a cyst, and so they ignore it. That's the trouble because it can metastasize very early and very fast," said Dr. Silvers.
Dr. Silvers said being in the sun for too long can lead to Merkel Cell Carcinoma, but it's not the only cause.
"There is a virus called the Polyomavirus, which is thought to be involved and that's not something you can really prevent. Also, a decrease in your immunity and aging. Also, if you're on any immune suppressant medications, you'd be a higher risk," said Dr. Silvers.
Doctor Silvers said Merkel Cell Carcinoma happens because there are fewer Merkel cells than basal and squamous cells in the skin. Basal cells constantly divide to form new cells to replace squamous cells, which are flat cells on the outer part of the skin and constantly shed. It's considered aggressive because it can spread quickly to the lymph nodes and other organs.
"To put it in perspective, basal cell and squamous cell are the most common. They're very common, one in three people, and then melanoma is gonna be one in 40 people, and merkel cell is one in 130,000 people. So, it's just a rare event that can happen to cause the cells to mutate in that fashion," said Dr. Silvers.
Doctor Silvers said being aware of how long you've been in the sun and using sun screen can help. She also said early detection is key, but for some people who have lived their life on the beach like Buffet did, that's not always possible. Doctor Silvers said even for Buffet fans in their 40s, 50s, and 60s or beyond, it's not too late to get help.
"Well, you can't reverse what happened already. You can't go backwards. You can get screened [and] if you see something and you are concerned about it, [and] you think it's changing, then you should bring it to the attention of your doctor. Preferably a doctor that's trained in looking at the skin," said Dr. Silvers.
Dr. Silvers recommends people who have Merkel Cell Carcinoma, any cancer, and in general should try to eat healthy, get plenty of exercise, and try to decrease their stress. She also said for those who work outside, can't avoid the sun, or want to enjoy a day at the beach to wear light-colored, breathable clothing, wear a wide-brim hat, and to wear sunscreen. Dr. Silvers recommends people should use sunscreen that's SPF 50 or higher, apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before going outside (to allow it to absorb into the skin), and reapply every two hours.