What to know about Merkel cell carcinoma, Jimmy Buffett’s rare cancer

Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who died Sept. 1, had Merkel cell carcinoma, a skin cancer diagnosed in fewer than 3,000 people in the US every year. Here’s what we know about the condition and how to recognize it.


By Jen Christensen/CNN

Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who died Sept. 1, had Merkel cell carcinoma, a skin cancer that’s diagnosed in fewer than 3,000 people in the U.S. every year.

Skin cancer is the most widespread form of the disease in the United States, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but Buffett’s death may be the first time people have heard of Merkel cell carcinoma. The condition was named for German scientist Friedrich Merkel, who first described that type of cell in 1875.

Merkel cells are thought to be a kind of neuroendocrine cell found at the base of the surface of the skin, the epidermis. They’re close to the nerve endings in the skin that let you feel a light touch.

Merkel cell carcinoma happens when something makes them grow out of control. Although scientists don’t fully understand what causes it, they believe the cancer is connected to UV light exposure, a weakened immune system due to disease or age, and the Merkel cell polyomavirus, which is found in nearly all the tumors of this cancer.

Nearly everyone gets MCV as a child, but it doesn’t cause any symptoms. The virus was discovered in 2008.

Merkel cell carcinoma typically shows up on a person’s face or neck or in other areas that are often exposed to the sun, like the arm. It can also be found in places like inside the nose or esophagus.

It looks like a raised red or purple lump or pimple, unlike melanoma, another serious form of skin cancer that shows up as a dark spot.

A Merkel cell carcinoma may be mistaken for a cyst, but cysts can be painful while these spots often are not Buffett, who was 76, had been living with the cancer for four years, according to his official website.

If it’s caught early enough, the chance of living at least five years after diagnosis is pretty good – about 75%, according to the American Cancer Society – but if it has spread past the skin, likelihood of five-year survival dips to 24%.

Although rare, it is the second most common cause of skin cancer death after melanoma, according to the National Cancer Institute. It can be deadly because it grows and spreads quickly, and it often can come back after treatment, usually within two or three years of diagnosis.

Men are twice as likely to develop this cancer than women. About 90% of the people who have it are White, and about 80% are 70 and older. The risks may be related to how much sun damage a person has had over their lifetime, the American Cancer Society says.


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