Merkel cell carcinoma is a very rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the skin. They are found in the top layer of the skin. These cells are very close to the nerve endings that receive the sensation of touch. Merkel cell carcinoma, also called neuroendocrine carcinoma of the skin or trabecular cancer, is a very rare type of skin cancer that forms when Merkel cells grow out of control. Merkel cell carcinoma starts most often in areas of skin exposed to the sun, especially the head and neck, as well as the arms, legs, and trunk.
Merkel cell carcinoma tends to grow quickly and to metastasize (spread) at an early stage. It usually spreads first to nearby lymph nodes and then may spread to lymph nodes or skin in distant parts of the body, lungs, brain, bones, or other organs.
Signs & Symptoms
Merkel cell carcinoma usually appears as a single painless lump on sun-exposed skin. This and other changes in the skin may be caused by Merkel cell carcinoma or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you see changes in your skin. Merkel cell carcinoma usually appears on sun-exposed skin as a single lump that is:
- Firm and dome-shaped or raised
- Red or violet in color
There are three types of standard treatment. Your OHC doctor will help you determine the best care plan for you.
- Surgery: One or more of the following surgical procedures may be used to treat Merkel cell carcinoma:
- Wide local excision: The cancer is cut from the skin along with some of the tissue around it. A sentinel lymph node biopsy may be done during the wide local excision procedure. If there is cancer in the lymph nodes, a lymph node dissection also may be done.
- Lymph node dissection: A surgical procedure in which the lymph nodes are removed and a sample of tissue is checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. For a regional lymph node dissection, some of the lymph nodes in the tumor area are removed; for a radical lymph node dissection, most or all of the lymph nodes in the tumor area are removed. This procedure is also called lymphadenectomy.
Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
- Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy is used to treat Merkel cell carcinoma, and may also be used as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
- Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.