What is Merkel Cell Cancer? Dr. Jamin C. Morrison Explains

Jamin C Morrison, MD

Jamin C Morrison, MD

Today, we fondly remember the iconic musician Jimmy Buffett, whose music brought joy to so many lives. His recent battle with Merkel cell cancer (MCC) has prompted us to raise awareness about this lesser-known but critical health concern.

Merkel cell cancer is a rare and aggressive skin cancer. It develops in Merkel cells, which are found in the top layer of your skin (epidermis). These cells are responsible for the sensation of touch.

The incidence rate of Merkel cell carcinoma is much lower than other skin cancers like melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. However, its incidence has been on the rise in recent years. Despite its rarity, Merkel cell cancer demands our attention due to its rapid growth and potential complications.

Understanding the risk factors, such as exposure to UV radiation, a weakened immune system, and age, is vital. Regular skin check-ups can help detect this cancer early, greatly improving the chances of successful treatment.

Risk Factors:

  • UV exposure: Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or artificial sources, like tanning beds, can increase the risk.
  • Weakened immune system: People with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS or organ transplant recipients, are at higher risk.
  • Age: MCC is more common in older individuals, typically those over the age of 50.


  • Merkel cell carcinoma often appears as a painless, firm, dome-shaped nodule or lump on the skin.
  • It may be red, purple, or skin-colored.
  • The tumor can grow rapidly and may ulcerate or bleed.


  • Treatment for Merkel cell cancer typically involves surgery to remove the tumor and surrounding tissue. Radiation therapy may be recommended to target any remaining cancer cells. In advanced cases or when the cancer has spread, immunotherapy or chemotherapy may be used.


  • Early detection and treatment are crucial for better outcomes.
  • Merkel cell carcinoma can be aggressive and may spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body, making it potentially life-threatening.


  • Protecting the skin from excessive sun exposure, using sunscreen, and avoiding tanning beds can reduce the risk of MCC.
  • Regular skin checks and prompt evaluation of any unusual skin growths or changes are essential.

Merkel cell carcinoma is a challenging condition due to its aggressive nature and potential to spread. If you suspect any unusual skin changes or growths, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional for evaluation and early intervention.

Let’s honor Jimmy Buffett’s legacy by advocating for Merkel cell cancer awareness. Share this post to spread the word and encourage your friends and family to prioritize their skin health. Together, we can make a difference in the fight against this rare cancer.

Jamin C. Morrison, MD
Hematologist/Medical Oncologist
MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper

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