Merkel cells are located in the epidermis, which is the skin's outermost layer. These cells play a vital role in experiencing the sense of touch and are connected to nerve endings that transmit sensations of touch to your brain. Merkel cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that typically appears on your face or neck. It's not as common as basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, which also tend to affect the face, but it is a more aggressive form of skin cancer and can quickly spread to other parts of your body if it's not treated promptly. Here's an overview of the causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment approach for Merkel cell carcinoma:
Causes And Symptoms
It's not clear why some people develop Merkel cell carcinoma, but having Merkel cell polyomavirus is thought to play an important role in the development of the disease. This is a type of skin virus that doesn't have any obvious signs or symptoms, so it's generally only discovered when your skin is being investigated for cancerous cells during diagnosis. Other risk factors for this type of skin cancer include excessive exposure to the sun or tanning beds, having a weakened immune system and a history of other types of skin cancer. Merkel cell carcinoma affects all age groups but is most commonly found in the elderly population.
The initial symptom of Merkel cell carcinoma is the development of a painless tumour on your skin. It can look red, blue or skin-coloured and tends to grow quickly. The growth can develop from a mole or unblemished area of skin, and it tends to bleed easily when washing or shaving.
Diagnosis And Treatment
Your doctor will diagnose Merkel cell carcinoma by examining the affected area of skin and taking a skin biopsy. This involves numbing the affected area with local anaesthetic and cutting out a small section of the tumour or scraping off skin cells from the top layer of the tumour. The biopsy is analysed for the presence of cancerous cells, and if you receive a positive diagnosis, your doctor may arrange for you to undergo diagnostic imaging, such as a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. For this type of scan, you will have a dye containing a radioactive tracer substance injected into the site of the tumour. This dye will spread through your lymph nodes and allows your doctor to check for the presence of cancerous cells in nearby tissues.
Treatment for this type of cancer involves the surgical removal of the tumour, which can leave you with mild localised disfigurement. If there's evidence of cancerous cells in the surrounding tissue, radiation therapy or chemotherapy can be used to destroy those cells. Your doctor may also prescribe drugs that stimulate your immune system to help fight the spread of cancerous cells.
If you develop a growth on your face or any other area of your body, schedule a skin cancer check as soon as possible, as Merkel cell carcinoma is easier to treat when diagnosed early.