What is Merkel Cell Carcinoma Skin Cancer

The term skin cancer often brings to mind basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.  However, there are a number of other lesser-known malignancies that arise in the skin.”While they are much less common, it’s important to recognize that there are ‘other’ skin cancers that can have a significant impact on your health,’ says Dr. Adam Mamelak, dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Austin, Texas.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma is one of these cutaneous tumors. It is considered to be 20 times more aggressive than melanoma and, if left alone, it can spreads exceptionally fast throughout the body.

What is Merkel Cell Carcinoma

image courtesy of merkelcell.org

image courtesy of merkelcell.org

“This form of skin cancer is quite rare, but may be considered one of the most lethal,” notes Dr. Mamelak.

Merkel Cells are associated with nerve endings within the skin. They are considered specialized sensory tactile receptors that help perceive light touch and texture. Merkel Cell Carcinoma arises from these Merkel cells. This malignancy does not stay localized, but can spread from the skin to the lymph nodes, and ultimately to other organs in the body. Metastasis with Merkel Cell Carcinoma happens quickly, making early detection and identification of this skin cancer of paramount importance so that patients can be assessed and treated early.

How Do You Know?

“The ability to differentiate between a skin cancer and a benign growth on the skin can be difficult,” admits Dr. Mamelak. Merkel Cell Carcinoma skin lesions classically appear blue, purple, or red in color. These nodules tend to be found in areas frequently sun exposure, such as the head, neck, and face. One way to remember the common risk factors for Merkel Cell Carcinoma is simply to remember your vowels:

asymptomatic – typically noted as a lack of tenderness of the area
expanding rapidly – Similar to other cancerous moles or lesions, Merkel Cell Carcinoma will change rapidly on the skin.
immune suppression – Those with suppressed immune systems, such as HIV or other health conditions, are more at risk for this type of cancer.
older than the age of 50 – This type of cancer is most often found in older patient population.
ultraviolet exposure – Individuals who are exposed to excessive amounts of UV rays are more likely to develop this cancer. These chances can be increased in those with fairer or lighter skin.

How Is It Treated?

This cancer can be treated in a similar fashion to many other skin tumors. “Mohs Micrographic Surgery is considered to be one of the most effective forms of cancer treatment. It completely removes the cancerous tissue while sparing as much of the healthy tissue as possible,” says Dr. Mamelak. Other viable treatment options include wide-local excision surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

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