Merkel Cell Carcinoma Clinic
The University of Michigan Merkel Cell Carcinoma Program is one of the first and remains one of the few multidisciplinary programs in the country created solely to treat patients with this rare disease.Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare and potentially aggressive form of skin cancer that arises in Merkel cells, which are cells on the outer layer of skin involved in the touch sensation. Though the cancer can grow and spread rapidly, it is highly treatable and curable if caught in the early stages.
Merkel cell carcinoma is rare, accounting for much less than 1% of total skin cancer diagnoses, though the number of patients diagnosed with the disease is thought to have tripled over the past two decades. Approximately 1,500 people are diagnosed with the disease each year. The U-M Merkel Cell Carcinoma Program treats approximately 70-100 patients annually from all over the world.
Learn more on the Merkel Cell Carcinoma Treatment webpages - part of the Health Library on the UofMHealth.org website.
Getting Diagnosed / TreatmentAll new patients who come to the clinic with a confirmed biopsy diagnosis receive a complete evaluation and exam and are staged, counseled, and educated about the disease. Each patient's case is discussed at a multidisciplinary tumor board conference devoted exclusively to Merkel cell carcinoma, including such specialties as dermatology, surgical oncology, radiation oncology, medical oncology, head and neck surgery, oculoplastic surgery, pathology, and nursing. The best course of treatment and overall management for each patient is determined by this group of collaborative colleagues.
Treatment will usually include surgery to remove the tumor and biopsy of a lymph node (sentinel lymph node biopsy) to find out whether the cancer has spread. This is typically done under general anesthetic on an outpatient basis. Radiation therapy to the skin and/or lymph nodes may also be indicated for patients who have high-risk lesions. Patients whose cancer has spread beyond their lymph nodes into their organs may need chemotherapy.
For Merkel cell carcinoma that has spread but is still confined within the leg or arm, we now offer two new therapy options: hyperthermic isolated limb perfusion and hyperthermic isolated limb infusion.
In the perfusion procedure, the limb with the cancer is surgically placed on a bypass circuit, where a machine pumps blood and treatment drugs through the limb and isolates it away from the rest of the body. In the infusion procedure, catheters are placed through the skin into the main artery and vein of the diseased limb to isolate it from the rest of the body. Surgeons can then give high doses of chemotherapy to attack and target the cancer within the limb and avoid most of the drug traveling throughout the entire body - which means fewer side effects. The most common side effect is swelling in the limb.
Patients stay in the hospital for 4-5 days afterward with physical therapy support, and generally return to their normal activities within 2-3 weeks. Studies have shown that 60-80% of patients respond to these treatments, and many patients have no residual signs of cancer after.
No matter the treatment, U-M's multidisciplinary specialists and medical team are dedicated to giving patients the highest level of care available, delivering it with compassion and taking into account your and your family's needs.
SupportSince our program is part of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, our patients have access to Patient/Family Support Services. To fully understand what this means, please take time to visit the For Cancer Center Patients area of this website. We outline the services available to our patients at every point in their care.
Make an appointment/referralTo make a first-time appointment, please call the Patient Care Center at 1-800-865-1125. If you would like to refer a patient, please contact our M-Line service: 800-962-3555. For more information, visit our Make an Appointment web page.
Still have questions?The nurses at Cancer AnswerLine™ have answers. Call 1-800-865-1125 and you'll get a personal response from one of our registered nurses, who have years of experience in caring for people with cancer.