Like any cancer, being diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma can be both confusing and concerning. However, thanks to advancements in diagnosis and treatment, outcomes have improved significantly in recent years, and surgery plays a key role.
In the UK, 1,500 people were diagnosed with this severe form of skin cancer between 1999 and 2008. And although the incidence of getting it is increasing each year, it is estimated that 70% of patients with localised Merkel cell carcinoma are still alive within five years after treatment.
So, what is Merkel cell carcinoma and what causes it? Discover everything you need to know below…
What is Merkel cell carcinoma?
Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare type of skin cancer. Also known as a neuroendocrine tumour of the skin, it is known to have a high recurrence rate.
Situated in the skin’s top layer, Merkel cells connect to the nerves. The tumours that present due to Merkel cell carcinoma aren’t as distinctive as those caused by other skin cancers. They can appear as a skin-coloured lump, though they can also appear red, bluish-red, or purple in colour. It is considered one of the more dangerous cancers due to how quickly it can spread.
What causes it?
Due to how rare it is, the cancer has been difficult to study. This means its exact cause isn’t currently known. However, there are some known risk factors that have been linked to the condition. These include:
- Exposure to UV rays
- History of skin cancer
- A weakened immune system
- Light coloured skin
- Old age
As Merkel cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer, exposure to UV rays is one of the biggest risks. This includes rays from direct sunlight, and from tanning beds.
The cancer is also more common in those with a history of other cancers such as Squamous cell carcinoma and Basal cell carcinoma. If you have a weakened immune system, you are also more likely to develop Merkel cell carcinoma. This includes if you have HIV, or if you are taking immune response suppressant drugs.
This type of cancer develops more in those with light coloured skin. It is more prevalent in those who are aged over 50, though you can develop it at any age.
The Merkel Cell Polyomavirus (MCP) is also known to link to cancer. However, a high percentage of people have the virus without developing Merkel cell carcinoma.
Your treatment options
Treatment will depend upon its presentation and extent. The options for treatment include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Often a combination of treatments is required for best results.
Surgery is a particularly effective option, and it may include procedures such as a local excision, sentinel node biopsy and lymph node dissection. To determine which type of treatment is right for you, you will need to undergo a consultation with a specialist.
For more advice, call us on 020 3770 5864 to arrange an appointment at the HCA Lister Hospital Clinics (Chelsea Outpatient Centre and Chiswick Medical Centre) or call 020 7808 2785 to book a consultation with Mr Myles Smith at the Royal Marsden Hospital.