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VCU Massey Cancer Center


What is Merkel cell cancer?

Merkel cell cancer also is known as neuroendocrine cancer of the skin or trabecular cancer. Characterized by firm, shiny skin lumps, this rare cancer develops on or just beneath the skin and in the hair follicles. Merkel cell cancer most often is found on sun-exposed areas of skin, such as the neck and head. The cancer mostly affects Caucasian people between the ages of 60 and 80 years of age. The cause of the cancer is unknown.

What is the appearance of Merkel cell cancer tumors?

Merkel cell cancer tumors usually are firm, shiny skin lumps that do not hurt. The lumps, or tumors, may be red, pink or blue and can range in size from smaller than a quarter inch to larger than two inches in diameter.

How is Merkel cell cancer diagnosed?

Early diagnosis and treatment of Merkel cell cancer is crucial in preventing the cancer from spreading. However, diagnosis of Merkel cell cancer is difficult, as it can resemble many other types of cancer.

Treatment for Merkel cell cancer

Specific treatment for Merkel cell cancer will be determined by your physician based on:

  • Your age, overall health and medical history.
  • Extent of the disease. 
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures and therapies. 
  • Expectations for the course of the disease. 
  • Your opinion or preference.

Treatment may include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor (including a border of healthy tissue) – since Merkel cell cancer grows fast and often spreads (metastasizes), your physician also may remove nearby lymph nodes.
  • Chemotherapy – treatment with drugs to destroy cancer cells. 
  • Radiation therapy – uses a radiation machine that emits X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
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