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Merkel Cell Carcinoma: Rare, Deadly and on the Rise

March 13, 2018


By Steven Blanchard

A rare but deadly type of skin cancer is on the rise, driven by an aging population. That means the Sunshine State’s 4.5 million baby boomers could be at risk.

Merkel cell carcinoma is two to three times more likely to recur than melanoma and more likely to be fatal, according to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Researchers expect the number of cases to increase even more over the next decade.

But don't lose hope, say experts at Moffitt Cancer Center.

"This is a disease that we can manage and cure. Instead of being pessimistic, we need to raise awareness about this form of skin cancer to potential patients and physicians," said Vernon Sondak, M.D., chair of Moffitt’s Department of Cutaneous Oncology.

Vernon Sondak, M.D.
Vernon Sondak, M.D.

Merkel cell carcinoma results from an excessive growth of cells in the outer layer of the skin. It develops in areas that are regularly exposed to sunlight or artificial sources of ultraviolet (UV) light, such as tanning beds. It presents as rapidly growing, red or purple skin lesions that are often mistaken for infected cysts.

"Merkel cell is another aggressive form of skin cancer, similar in many ways to melanoma but with fewer early warning signs," says Sondak. "People need to be reminded that just because a changing skin lesion doesn’t show the ‘ABCD’ features we associate with melanoma, it does not rule out a dangerous skin cancer."

The "ABCD" features Sondak mentioned refers to the acronym dermatologists utilize to classify melanomas – Asymmetry, irregular Borders, more than one or uneven distribution of Color and large (greater than 6mm) in Diameter.

Early detection has helped lower the recurrence and death rates for skin cancers. Knowing this, continued screening is encouraged and heavily supported by Moffitt. The cancer center’s Mole Patrol team offers free events throughout the Tampa Bay community and Florida to promote early detection and screen for skin cancers. We also partner with the Tampa Bay Rays annually for our Spring Swing® Sun Safety Tour, which brings our Mole Patrol to spring training games around the state. Here is the next stop:

• Sunday, March 25 – Minnesota Twins vs. Boston Red Sox, CenturyLink Sports Complex, Fort Myers – screenings available from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.