Merkel Cell Carcinoma: Is this Rare Skin Cancer on the Rise?

Merkel Cell Carcinoma (MCC) is a type of skin cancer that affects only a few thousand people each year in comparison to the tens of thousands with melanoma. While it may not be as common as other skin cancers, MCC is highly aggressive and often deadly. Furthermore, the disease is becoming more common according to a new publication in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology presented at the American Academy of Dermatology 2018 Annual Meeting in San Diego.

“MCC is rare, but our research shows that it’s becoming less rare,” says board-certified dermatologist Paul Nghiem, MD, PhD, FAAD. He adds that “Compared to melanoma, MCC is much more likely to be fatal, so it’s important for people to be aware of it.”

Due to the rising melanoma incidence over the last few decades, Dr. Nghiem and his colleagues suspected that MCC incidence was also on a steady incline. After examining data from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER-18 registry, Dr. Nghiem found that the numbers were, indeed, increasing at a pace more rapid than they had anticipated.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma Statistics in the U.S.

According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 1,500 cases of MCC are diagnosed in the country each year. Specifically, more than 9 out of 10 people with an MCC diagnosis are older than age 50, and over 2 out of 3 are older than 70.

Like the majority of skin cancers, MCC is also much more common in whites than in people of other races. In fact, an estimated 9 out of 10 cases of MCC in the United States develop in Caucasian males and females.

MCC diagnosis has been rising quickly over the last few decades and may be due to the fact that it was first described around 45 years ago, which is fairly recent. Doctors have since become more aware of the disease, and technology advancements, including more elaborate lab tests, are now able to diagnose these cancers more accurately.

How Merkel Cell Carcinoma Develops

MCC begins its journey in dominating the human body once a skin cell called Merkel cells start growing uncontrollably. This cancer can develop quickly and may prove difficult to treat once it spreads beyond the skin.

Merkel cells are thought to be a form of skin neuroendocrine cell because of their similar features to nerve cells and hormone-making cells. They are primarily at the base of the epidermis and are very close to nerve endings in the skin, enabling our senses to feel light touch. This unique ability of the Merkel cell is what allows us do things like feel the delicate, small details on an object’s surface.

Signs and Symptoms

This type of skin cancer usually starts thriving on areas of skin exposed to the sun, including the face, neck, arms, and legs. However, it can also occur anywhere on the body. The most common sign of this disease often appears as a single pink, red, or purple bump that is rarely ever painful. Sometimes, the skin covering the top of the tumor might break open, causing it to bleed and ooze.

These tumors tend to grow quickly and can spread as new lumps or bumps in the surrounding skin. These tumors may also reach nearby lymph nodes, a component of the body’s immune system. Over time, the lymph nodes can grow enough to be seen or felt as lumps under the surface of the neck or arm.

Despite the rise in incidence, MCC is still uncommon. Therefore, its signs and symptoms may appear like common types of skin cancer or other skin problems. Because of this, doctors and dermatologists do not usually suspect MCC at first, meaning the diagnosis is often made only after the tumor is biopsied.

Risk Factors

Possessing a risk factor for MCC (or even several) does not immediately mean that you will get the disease. Most people with risk factors never get MCC, while others with the disease had no known risk factors at all.

There are very few known risk factors for MCC, including evidence of the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV) that can be found in the cells of most Merkel cell carcinomas. However, MCV is a common virus with most people contracting the disease at some point in their lives (often before the age of 20). Moreover, the infection does not cause symptoms, and it rarely leads to MCC. Because of this, there are no recommended screening tests or treatments for MCV infection. Still, MCC is associated with MCV, and if someone’s immune system is not functioning properly due to age or other factors, that person may be more likely to develop Merkel cell carcinoma after encountering the virus.

Aside from MCV, the majority of risk factors for MCC are similar to those of non-melanoma skin cancer, including ultraviolet light exposure, having light-colored skin, being older, and having a weakened immune system.

Survival Rates for Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Since MCC is an uncommon type of cancer, it may be challenging to get accurate survival statistics for the disease. Overall, there is a 60% 5-year survival rate for MCC patients. It is much higher if the cancer is found early as opposed to having it spread to the lymph nodes or neighboring parts of the body.

As an important reminder, bear in mind that mortality rates cannot tell you how long you will live and are only estimations. However, they may help in providing you with a better understanding of how likely your treatment will be successful.

Choose New Hope for Alternative Skin Cancer Treatments

It is crucial to have any new, growing, or evolving lumps, bumps, or spots on your skin checked by a medical professional as soon as possible. This proactiveness enables the cause to be found and treated as necessary. Like other skin cancers, MCC has the best prognosis when detected very early on.

If diagnosed with skin cancer, choose today to get holistic treatment recommendations for your disease. New Hope Medical Center provides alternative cancer therapies that are backed up by pioneering cancer researchers and are specifically designed to strengthen the body’s natural defense systems. Call us today at 480-757-6573 or email us at [email protected].

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