- Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett died on September 1 from a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma.
- This type of skin cancer isn’t as common as basal cell carcinoma or melanoma.
- However, it tends to be more aggressive and is quick to spread throughout the body.
- Even when treatment is effective, Merkel cell carcinoma has a high recurrence rate of about 40%.
On September 1, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett passed away from a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma.
The singer continued to perform while receiving treatment. However, in recent weeks, his health started to decline.
“It is much rarer, more likely to spread quickly to other parts of the body, such as lymph nodes and organs, harder to treat, and more prone to come back after treatment,” Dr. Wael Harb, a hematologist and medical oncologist at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, and Vice President of Medical Affairs at Syneos Health, told Healthline.
Merkel cell skin cancer typically presents with a painless pink or blue-red nodule on the skin.
Usually, these tumors grow on the face, head, or neck, but they can grow anywhere on the body.
The cancer cells are known to grow quickly and metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body.
Merkel cell carcinoma also has a high rate of recurrence — at about 40% — compared to other skin cancers like melanoma, which has a 7% rate of recurrence, and basal cell carcinoma, which has a recurrence rate of less than 0.5%, said Dr. Lisa Zaba, PhD, the director of the Merkel cell carcinoma multi-disciplinary clinic at the Stanford Cancer Center.
This type of skin cancer is most prevalent in older adults who have had long-term sun exposure or a weakened immune system.
“The risk of acquiring MCC climbs steeply with age,” said Zaba.
Most people are infected with MCP by age 6, and there are likely other factors that increase a person’s risk of developing Merkel cell carcinoma.
It’s more common in people with light-colored skin and a history of other types of skin cancer.
Merkel cell skin cancer affects approximately 3,000 Americans every year, however, that number has been increasing due to enhanced detection and longer lifespan.
According to Harb, survival rates depend on the stage of cancer and where the tumor is located.
Survival rates are higher when the tumor is located on the arms or the legs compared to when they’re on the head or neck, said Harb.
Merkel cell carcinoma can be detected during skin examinations.
If your healthcare provider notices any unusual growths, they may take a biopsy of the tumor and examine it in a laboratory for signs of cancer cells.
To determine if the cancer has spread beyond the skin, they may also conduct a sentinel node biopsy or imaging tests that can identify cancer cells across the body.
With Merkel cell carcinoma, rapid treatment is crucial, says Zaba.
Treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy.
During surgery, the tumors and nearby tissues are removed. In metastatic cancer, the lymph nodes may be removed, too.
Treating early-stage skin cancer is far more effective than treating late-stage cancers.
The best way to prevent Merkel cell skin cancer is to prevent sun damage and avoid viral infections.
Harb recommends the following strategies:
- avoid the sun during peak hours
- wear protective clothing
- apply sunblock
- avoid tanning beds
Those with weakened immune systems should work closely with their doctor and take extra precautions, as they have a heightened risk of infections.
Check your skin regularly for any changes or abnormal growths.
If you notice anything suspicious, schedule a visit to a dermatologist.
“Decreasing sun exposure is the most modifiable way to decrease [the] risk of Merkel cell carcinoma,” said Zaba.
Jimmy Buffett passed away on September 1 from a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma.
This type of skin cancer isn’t as common as basal cell carcinoma or melanoma, however, it tends to be more aggressive and is quick to spread throughout the body.
Even when treatment is effective, Merkel cell carcinoma has a high recurrence rate of about 40%.