Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare type of skin cancer

Nikki Sommer, a nurse with Key West Surgical Group, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5 FM for Medical Matters this morning.

Merkel cell carcinoma is the type of skin cancer that Jimmy Buffet had.

Sommer said, “It’s one of those rare cancers that you never heard about. I actually know somebody personally that had this cancer and they were able to treat it. So that was a success story. I’ve been a nurse for over 20 years, I really never had heard of it. So when somebody famous like Jimmy Buffett, or somebody that’s in the media, has a rare cancer, you might hear the name in passing but not realize what it is. But it’s something to talk about, and it’s something that can happen. And it is very rare.”

What are the symptoms?

Sommer said it’s “very rare and aggressive. It develops, you have what’s called Merkel cells found in the outer layer of your skin, which is the epidermis, and again, constant exposure to or excessive exposure to UV light, and other risk factors, like tanning beds, all those things that we thought were fun when we were young, increases your risk for Merkel cell carcinoma.”

It tends to affect people older than 70.

Sommer said, “It normally does kind of affect people that are usually 70 or older. They also think that it’s becoming more common now. It’s rare. It only affects like 3,000 Americans every year but just like everything else, people are living longer. So they’re more likely to develop chronic conditions, skin conditions, skin cancers, any type of disease process is being more diagnosed but it’s because we are living longer.”

There is also the possibility of a virus developing and those with Merkel cell carcinoma, about eight and 10 people may get the polyomavirus.

Sommer said, “It’s Merkel cell polyomavirus. It’s MCP. A lot of people that are infected with it, they don’t develop Merkel cell carcinoma, but they do see that, in certain cases, if you’ve had the virus, it can turn into Merkel cell carcinoma later on down the road. It’s a common childhood virus, apparently, that doesn’t really cause symptoms, so there’s no way to screen for it. They’re trying to do more research to see what the correlation is between the virus and the cancer. Weakened immune system is what research is pointing towards because if your immune system is weak, you’re not able to suppress the virus. A lot of times we can fight off viruses, like colds, the flu, just different viruses, the body can naturally fight it off, there’s no treatment for it. So if you’re immunosuppressed though it can turn into other ugly things.”

What are some of the signs that someone may be developing this?

Sommer said, “The risk factors are people over the age of 50. It can happen to all ages, genders and skin colors, men over the age of 50, who are very fair skinned are more at risk. If you’ve had a history of skin cancer, like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma or melanoma, like we talked about, history of using a tanning bed, sunburn, light therapy to treat psoriasis or the skin diseases. If you have had lymphocytic leukemia, HIV, or other conditions, or you take immunosuppressants, those are the risk factors that increase your risk of Merkel cell carcinoma. If you think you have it, these are the signs that you need to look for. You should especially where we are, have your skin check at the very least once a year. If you are at risk, usually they have you come back every three to six months. This starts out a little different than the other ones we talked about. Although it is a lump. It could be the size of a dime, dome shaped or raised, firm, itchy similar to a pimple. It could have like a bluish, reddish tint to it and you might think is a pimple and you might want to pop it or it’s an insect bite. But it doesn’t heal and it’s very tender or sore. So if you have any of those type of lesions on your body, the sooner you get it checked out, the better.”

What are some of the complications?

Sommer said, “Just like melanoma and even squamous cell, it can spread, which is called metastatic disease or metastatic cancer, which makes it harder to treat. So, it most commonly will spread into your lymphatic system first, from wherever it is on the body. It can be anywhere on the body. Typical places are face, neck and torso I believe but it can be on your limbs, your back. So it’s important you look for any changes in those areas, but it will go into the lymphatic system first and then it can spread to other parts like your bones, lungs, brain, unfortunately, other organs and it can be fatal.”

For more information, click here: