Merkel Cell Carcinoma

What Is Merkel Cell Carcinoma?

Merkel cell carcinoma, also called neuroendocrine cancer of the skin, is a rare type of disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found on or just beneath the skin and in hair follicles. Merkel cell carcinoma usually appears as firm, painless, shiny lumps of skin. These lumps or tumors can be red, pink, or blue in color and vary in size from less than a quarter of an inch to more than two inches. Merkel cell carcinoma is usually found on the sun-exposed areas of the head, neck, arms, and legs. This type of cancer occurs mostly in whites between 60 and 80 years of age, but it can occur in people of other races and ages as well.

Merkel cell carcinoma grows rapidly and often metastasizes (spreads) to other parts of the body. Even relatively small tumors are capable of metastasizing. When the disease spreads, it tends to spread to the regional (nearby) lymph nodes and may also spread to the liver, bone, lungs, and brain. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body. They produce and store infection-fighting cells.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Symptoms of Merkel Cell Carcinoma

What are possible signs of Merkel cell carcinoma?

Merkel cell carcinoma usually appears as firm, painless, shiny lumps of skin. These lumps or tumors can be red, pink, or blue in color and vary in size from less than a quarter of an inch to more than two inches. Merkel cell carcinoma is usually found on the sun-exposed areas of the head, neck, arms, and legs. This type of cancer occurs mostly in Caucasians between 60 and 80 years of age, but it can occur in people of other races and ages as well.

How Is Merkel Cell Carcinoma 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 look like many other types of cancer.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma Staging

After Merkel cell carcinoma has been diagnosed more tests will be done to find out if cancer cells have spread from the place the cancer started to other parts of the body. The process used to find out whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body is called staging. It is important to know the stage of the disease to plan the best treatment.

The following stages are used for Merkel cell carcinoma:

  • Stage 1: The primary tumor dimension is less than or equal to 2 cm without lymph node involvement.
  • Stage 2: The primary tumor is larger than 2 cm in maximum dimension but there is no lymph node involvement.
  • Stage 3: Regional lymph nodes are affected in Stage III or there is an in-transit metastasis.
  • Stage 4: The tumor has metastasized to any distant site outside of the regional lymph node distribution and/or internal organ (visceral) involvement.
  • Recurrent: Recurrent disease means that the cancer has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. It may come back in the same part of the body or in another part of the body.
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