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Cancer Types - Merkel Cell Cancer

What is Merkel cell cancer?

Merkel cell cancer is also known as neuroendocrine cancer of the skin or trabecular cancer. Characterized by firm, shiny skin lumps, this rare cancer develops on or just beneath the skin and in the hair follicles. Merkel cell cancer most often is found on sun-exposed areas of skin, such as the neck and head. The cancer mostly affects Caucasian people over age 50. The cause of the cancer is unknown, but it is believed to be related to both sun exposure and suppression of the immune system.

What is the appearance of Merkel cell cancer tumors?

Merkel cell cancer tumors usually are firm, shiny skin lumps that do not hurt. The lumps, or tumors, may be red, pink, or blue and tend to grow very quickly.

How is Merkel cell cancer diagnosed?

Early diagnosis and treatment of Merkel cell cancer is crucial in preventing the cancer from spreading. The diagnosis is made with a biopsy, a procedure in which tumor samples are removed (with a needle or scalpel, or during surgery) for examination under a microscope to determine if cancer cells are present. However, diagnosis of Merkel cell cancer is difficult, as it can look like many other types of cancer.

Treatment for Merkel cell cancer

Specific treatment for Merkel cell cancer will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent and location of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, and therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor (including a border of healthy tissue). Since Merkel cell cancer grows fast and often spreads (metastasizes), your doctor may also remove nearby lymph nodes.
  • Radiation therapy. This uses a radiation machine that emits X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This may be given after surgery, or as part of the main treatment if surgery is not an option.
  • Chemotherapy. Treatment with drugs to destroy cancer cells used mainly for more advanced disease.

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