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What is Merkel cell skin cancer? The signs and symptoms of the rare condition

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Jimmy Buffett died aged 76 on Friday (1 September), in hospice care, after a years-long private struggle with skin cancer.

In a statement shared on his website, it was announced that the singer, who was best known for his hit song “Margaritaville”, had been fighting Merkel cell skin cancer for four years.

Cancer Research UK has recently warned that skin cancer cases are set to rise by half by 2040, with rocketing diagnoses driven by the “cheap package holiday” boom of the 1960s.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in Britain and kills around 2,100 people each year. It is also one of the most common cancers in the world.

What is Merkel cell skin cancer?

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare type of skin cancer.

According to Cancer Research UK, it starts in the Merkel cells, which are usually in the top layer of the skin. These cells are near the nerve endings and they help us respond to touch.

The charity states that MCC is a “very rare” form of skin cancer, with 1,500 people diagnosed with the condition in England between 1999 and 2008.

What are the causes of Merkel cell carcinoma?

With most types of skin cancer, long-term exposure to sunlight can increase a person’s risk of getting MCC.

Other factors that could increase a person’s risk include being exposed to ultraviolet light, having a condition that can weaken your immune system or having a virus called Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV).

What are the symptoms?

MCC usually appears as lumps on the skin. According to Cancer Research UK, the lumps are often a blue/red colour and less than 2cm across but sometimes they can be larger.

The skin over them is usually firm and they are not painful.

These lumps are often found on the areas of the body that get the most direct sun, such as the head, neck, arms or legs.

Unlike most common types of skin cancer, MCC can develop rapidly over weeks or months and can spread to other parts of the body such as the lungs, lymph nodes, liver or bones.

The NHS advises that if you are in doubt, contact your GP.

How to prevent developing skin cancer

Skin cancer is not always preventable, but you can reduce your chance of developing it by avoiding overexposure to UV light.

You can protect yourself from sunburn by using high-factor sunscreen, covering up your skin while in the sun, and limiting the amount of time you spend in the sun during the hottest part of the day. Sunbeds and sunlamps should also be avoided.

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