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Merkel Cell Carcinoma

(Neuroendocrine Skin Carcinoma; Primary Small Cell Skin Carcinoma; Trabecular Cell Carcinoma; APUDoma of the Skin; Anaplastic Skin Cancer)

By Gregory L. Wells, MD

Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare, rapidly spreading skin cancer that tends to affect older white people.

Merkel cell carcinoma is diagnosed at an average age of 75. Merkel call carcinoma also affects younger people whose immune system is weakened. Sun exposure increases the risk, as does having another cancer.

The cancer is typically a firm, shiny, flesh-colored or bluish-red bump. Cancers tend to grow rapidly without causing pain or tenderness. Although Merkel cell carcinoma can affect any part of the skin, it is most common on skin that has been chronically exposed to sunlight (for example, the face and arms).

A biopsy is done to confirm the diagnosis. In most people, the cancer has already spread by the time the diagnosis has been made, so the prognosis is poor. Treatment usually involves surgery to remove the tumor, often followed by radiation therapy, removal or biopsy of lymph nodes, or both. If cancer has spread or recurs, chemotherapy may be recommended.