Make an appointment/referral

Please call 800-865-1125 (Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm EST). To refer a patient, please contact our M-Line service: 800-962-3555.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma

We were one of the first and are still one of the few multidisciplinary programs in the country created solely to treat patients with Merkel cell carcinoma.

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 best managed with the collaboration of multiple surgical and medical specialties offered in the program's Multidisciplinary Merkel Cell Carcinoma Clinic. Our physicians offer experience and expertise in treating this disease at all stages.

Signs and symptoms

Merkel cell carcinoma typically presents as a reddish or purple bump that can occur anywhere on the body, but is predominantly found in sun-exposed areas such as the head, neck, arms and legs. The risk of having the disease increases with age, and 95% of patients are over the age of 50. Being fair-skinned or immunosuppressed also increases your risk. 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 Merkel Cell Carcinoma Program treats approximately 70-100 patients annually from all over the world.

Care for Merkel cell carcinoma

Patients that have been diagnosed through a biopsy with Merkel cell carcinoma will receive a complete evaluation and exam and are staged, counseled and educated about the disease as a new patient. Each patient's case is then discussed at a multidisciplinary tumor board conference devoted exclusively to Merkel cell carcinoma, and includes experts from 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 experts. Working closely with the patient, family and their referring doctors, we work to coordinate treatment and follow-up care close to home when possible and to minimize trips to Ann Arbor.

Treatment options

Treatment usually includes surgery to remove the tumor and biopsy of a lymph node (called a sentinel lymph node biopsy) to find out whether the cancer has spread. This is typically done under general anesthesia 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. No matter the treatment, U-M's Merkel cell 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.

Once treatment is complete, you will continue to receive follow-up care through the Merkel Cell Carcinoma Program. This will include exams of the skin and lymph nodes, and may include further testing.

Support

As part of the Comprehensive Cancer Center patients have access to the Patient and Family Support Program. These services are available to patients, their families and caregivers as a resource to help during treatment and afterwards.

Make an appointment, referral or have questions answered

To make a first-time appointment or have questions, please call the Patient Care Center at 1-800-865-1125 and talk with one of our oncology nurses. If you would like to refer a patient, please contact M-LINE at 800-962-3555. For more information, visit our Make an Appointment web page.

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Cancer AnswerLine:  800-865-1125

Related Resources:

Merkel Cell Carcinoma Information Guide [pdf]
this document provides a list of websites, books, video and national organizations for patients with merkel cell skin cancer