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What is Merkel cell cancer?

Musician and icon Jimmy Buffett died of a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel Cell Cancer. What is it?

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Medical experts say Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare, but highly aggressive skin cancer. According to the Mayo Clinic, it may have these characteristics:

  • Usually appears as a flesh-colored or bluish-red nodule
  • Often on your face, head or neck
  • Can develop anywhere on your body, even on areas not exposed to sunlight.

Merkel is like other skin cancers...it's the abnormal growth of skin cells. So, what are some common risk factors? Dr. Wes Stubblefield with Alabama Department of Public Health explains. "So known risk factors for skin cancer include things like a light or natural skin color, skin that easily burns, having pale or eyes, pale hair, having a family history of a personal history of skin cancer, and then, of course, age."

And the most important thing to keep in mind is if you notice any changes in your skin... see a healthcare provider. Stubblefield says, "So we don't have any specific recommendations about about skin cancer screening in a medical setting, but we do recommend  people watch themselves on their skin for anything that may have changed recently. So a mark that has grown in size, changes color, becomes irritated? Anything like that should definitely be seen either by a health care provider or even a dermatologist if possible."

The National Institutes of Health says only one in six men and one in seven women get their skin checked once a year. The five-year survival rate for Merkel cell carcinoma remains around 65%, underlying the unmet need for unique treatments.

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