Phoenix-area dermatologist explains Merkel skin carcinoma, its warning signs

Jimmy Buffett died after a four-year fight with a rare form of skin cancer. Merkel cell carcinoma is very rare and spreads quickly.
Published: Sep. 5, 2023 at 10:06 AM MST|Updated: Sep. 5, 2023 at 10:08 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Following the death of Jimmy Buffett from Merkel skin carcinoma, questions linger about the rare and aggressive form of skin cancer.

“Often it gets diagnosed at a later stage and because it gets diagnosed at a later stage, I will tell you that 30% of patients at the time of diagnosis have some sort of metastasis, either locally or to a lymph node and so that’s why it’s much more lethal,” Dr. Karan Lal with Affiliated Dermatology said.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, Merkel cell carcinoma is “about three to five times more likely to be deadly than melanoma.” The cancer has a high risk of returning and spreading but it is extremely rare.

The Skin Cancer Foundation says Merkel cell cancer is 40 times more rare than melanoma with around 3,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the US.

“It’s one of those tricky things that it doesn’t really fit the classic criteria of skin cancer. It’s often not asymmetrical or has irregular borders or multiple colors. You know, I’ve seen ones that look like things that I would have never biopsied and they ended up being Merkel cells,” Dr. Lal added.

The pediatric and cosmetic dermatologist says getting your skin checked on a regular basis is important along with daily sunscreen use.

“Typically, I recommend if you live in Arizona and you’re a regular person like us and you’re going to work every day, face, ears, neck, and any exposed areas, arms and back of your hands every day,” Dr. Lal added.

If you’re outside for a longer period of time, Dr. Lal says “anything that’s exposed, you should cover in sunscreen or wear some protective clothing.”

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