Merkel Cell Carcinoma


Skin Cancers and Prevention


Talented musician and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett was beloved for the laid-back spirit of his music. It’s infused with a special kind of tropical vibe that just screams escapism and convinces everyone a beach day or a trip to the Caribbean is in order. Partially because his music evokes such happiness, the recent announcement of Buffett’s death on September 1, 2023 came as a shock to many. 


Buffett, 76, died following a four-year battle with Merkel cell carcinoma, which is a rare and fast-growing form of malignant skin cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, Merkel cell carcinoma typically appears as a firm, painless lump or pimple. It’s usually pink, red, or purple and typically appears on an area of the skin that gets a lot of sun — most commonly the head or neck, but also often on the legs, arms, or trunk. Sun exposure and a weakened immune system put people at higher risk for Merkel cell carcinoma. 


Another more well-known type of skin cancer is melanoma — which can vary in appearance and develop anywhere on your body. Melanoma is highly treatable when it’s caught early, but it can quickly spread to other parts of the body and become much harder to treat. 


When detected early, the five-year survival rate for melanoma is around 99%, which is why screening is very important. Once detected, some common treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. When melanoma reaches more advanced stages, various types of immunotherapy and other targeted therapies can also be effective.


While you’re blasting “Cheeseburger in Paradise” or “Margaritaville” in memory of Buffet, another great way to pay tribute to this American musical hero is by taking some time to brush up on your skin cancer knowledge — including how to avoid it.


According to the American Cancer Society, there are a few things you can do to lower your risk for skin cancers like melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma. These include:


  • Lowering your exposure to UV rays from sunlight and tanning beds
  • Staying in the shade to lower your exposure to the sun’s UV rays
  • Wearing sunscreen
  • Wearing a hat, shirt, and/or sunglasses when outdoors in the sun to protect your skin and eyes from UV rays 
  • Protecting kids from excess sun exposure


Remember, it’s important to catch skin cancer early, when it’s easier to treat. Here are two ways to increase your chances of detecting skin cancer:


Do a skin self-exam: Consider looking over your skin once each month by doing a skin self-exam. You can use a full length mirror and a hand-held mirror (for hard to see areas) to check all areas of your skin. Don’t forget about easily overlooked areas, like your scalp, ears, nails, back, palms, and soles. Even if you don’t detect anything out of the ordinary, this process helps you to get familiar with your skin — moles, freckles, and all — so that you’ll more easily notice changes if and when they appear.


Get in touch with a doctor right away if something concerning catches your eye. This might be a spot on your skin that’s changed color, shape, or size, or an unusual lump, sore, or marking. You’ll also want to keep your eyes peeled for areas of skin that are red, scaly, oozing, or different in appearance than usual. 


See a healthcare professional for a skin exam: Regular, full-body skin exams with a doctor are another important way to stay on top of your skin health and increase your chances of detecting skin cancer early. These exams are very thorough but usually take just 10 minutes or less. 


Wondering what to expect? You’ll wear a medical gown and your doctor will check all of your skin from head to toe. If they notice anything suspicious or concerning, they may choose to remove part of it and send it to a lab for further analysis  — this is called a biopsy. If the biopsy comes back positive for skin cancer, your doctor will share more information with you, including your treatment options.   


Many people have these exams yearly, but it can be helpful to chat with your doctor about your skin cancer risk to find out how often you should go for a skin exam. 
To learn more, schedule an appointment with a physician at Oncology Specialists of Charlotte.


published: Oct. 2, 2023, 8:44 a.m.

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