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Skin Cancer

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Merkel cell carcinoma is a very rare disease in which malignant cancer cells form within the dermis—the skin layer beneath the epidermis (the outer layer). Only about 2,000 out of 3.4 million Americans predicted to get skin cancer this year will be diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma. However, this number has been increasing, likely due to people living longer and evolving diagnostic technology.

Merkel cell carcinoma often appears as a single, painless bump on the skin, sometimes reddened like a cold sore or blister. The 2 most common locations include the head and the neck. Along with the arms and legs, these sites account for 70% to 90% of cases. It is urgent to have any growth like this checked out by a board-certified dermatologist.

The Dangers of Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Merkel cell carcinoma typically first spreads to nearby lymph nodes. If untreated, the cancer cells can spread to the brain, bones, liver and/or lungs. When this happens, it can interfere with vital body functions. As with other cancers, once Merkel cell carcinoma has metastasized, it is more challenging to treat and can be terminal depending on the stage of diagnosis.

The five-year survival rate for Merkel cell carcinoma is improving. Patients with early Merkel cell carcinoma have a 78% survival rate, while those whose cancer has spread have a 52% survival rate.

If caught early, Merkel cell carcinoma can be curable with surgical and non-surgical therapies. Treatments are highly individualized, depending on a patient’s general health and the tumor’s location, size, depth, and degree of spread.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma Risk Factors

Your chances of developing some types of cancers may be linked to inherited genes. These can include breast cancer, prostate cancer and melanoma. However, Merkel cell carcinoma is not one of these. It has no genetic risk factors.

Merkel cell carcinoma occurs primarily in people who:

  • are over 65, especially white males
  • are immunocompromised, due to organ transplants, AIDS or having another type of cancer
  • have a history of exposure to UV radiation, primarily sun exposure

Make an Appointment for a Skin Check

If you or a loved one are concerned about skin cancer, have noticed unexplained growth of moles or skin discolorations, please contact a California Skin Institute practice near you for an evaluation, and request a skin check appointment.


This is to be used only as an educational piece. Individuals should not use it to self-diagnose a skin condition or problem.

Treatments for Merkel Cell Carcinoma

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