Is Merkel cell carcinoma serious?

Tawnya Bowlers, MD
Surgical Oncology
Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare, aggressive cancer that most often begins as a small nodule or cyst-like growth on sun-exposed skin. It can often mimic non-cancerous lesions, such as sebaceous cysts, and may be misdiagnosed.  Although the skin lesion of Merkel cell carcinoma may be deceptively small, Merkel cell cancers are very aggressive and can have rapid spread to nearby lymph nodes. Merkel cell cancers can also metastasize, or spread, to the internal organs. If Merkel cell carcinoma is diagnosed early, it can be effectively treated with surgical resection of the skin tumor. Lymph node biopsy is often performed at the same time.   

Merkel cell carcinoma is a relatively serious type of cancer because it's extremely aggressive. Once tumors start to form, they can spread in as little as a few weeks or months. If people are treated before the cancer reaches the lymph nodes, the outlook is good. The 5-year survival rate (meaning the percentage of people who, after treatment, are still alive 5 years after being diagnosed) for these cases is over 90 percent. However, once the cancer has started to spread, the outlook isn't as good, with a 5-year survival rate of around half. The disease also recurs in about half of all patients. Because Merkel cell carcinoma is so aggressive, it's important to talk to your doctor right away if you notice any symptoms.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.