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What Are The First Symptoms Of Merkel Cell Carcinoma & How Do You Test For It?

Merkel cell carcinoma is rare skin cancers that can metastasize to distant organs. It usually affects old people. Constant exposure to the sun and weak immune system can cause this cancer. It develops as a single red or purple lump on the skin. It is a rapidly growing cancer. It appears mainly on sun-exposed areas. It can be detected with a skin biopsy, X-ray, MRI scan, CT scan and others. It can be treated with surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

What Are The First Symptoms Of Merkel Cell Carcinoma?

What Are The First Symptoms Of Merkel Cell Carcinoma?

Merkel cell carcinoma is a very rare disease characterized by red or purple cancerous growth on the skin. It tends to grow in an uncontrolled manner on the areas of skin which is regularly exposed to the sun. It is seen in the head, neck, trunk, arms, and legs. It grows at a rapid speed and spread quickly to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.(1)

Merkel cell carcinoma usually develops in people who are old or who have a weak immune system. The risk factors that may trigger the growth of Merkel cancer cells are-

  • Male above the age of 50 years
  • Having white complexion
  • Exposure to natural sunlight
  • Exposure to artificial sunlight like tanning beds, psoralen and ultraviolet A (PUVA) therapy for psoriasis
  • Having any disease that weakens the immune system such as HIV infection, chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  • Taking medicines that may weaken the immune system such as organ transplantation
  • History of other types of cancer(1)

The first symptoms of Merkel cell carcinoma are represented by a single painless lump appearing on the sun-exposed skin. It is a fast-growing nodular tumor on the skin.(2)

It may grow as an inflamed cyst. It does not appear like anything that the patient has experienced previously.(3) It may be red, blue or purple. It usually develops on the face, head or neck. However, it can appear anywhere in the body. It can even grow on the skin areas that are not exposed to the sunlight.(2)

Merkel cell carcinoma is metastatic. It may spread beyond the skin even with the treatment. It first spread to nearby lymph nodes. Then it spreads to vital organs such as the brain, lungs, liver or bones and disrupts their functioning. If metastasis is not controlled, then it becomes difficult to treat further and may become life-threatening.(2)

How Do You Test For Merkel Cell Carcinoma?

Merkel cell carcinoma is detected by some procedures and tests. Your physician will perform a physical examination of the skin by closely examining the unusual moles, freckles, pigmented spots, and other skin ailments. He will remove the tumor cells to send it to the laboratory to find out any signs of cancer. This process is called a skin biopsy. He will also order you some tests such as sentinel node biopsy and imaging tests. Sentinel node biopsy helps to know whether the lymph nodes are also involved. In this process, a dye is injected into the lymph nodes near cancer and your doctor removes these lymph nodes and cancerous cells are observed for microscopic study.

Imaging tests such as MRI scans, CT scans, and X-rays are also advised to know the spread of cancer. In some cases, PET (positron emission tomography) is advised to evaluate the spread of the cancer cells.(2)


Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare cancer of the skin that affects old people most. It appears as a red or purple painless lump or nodule on the sun-exposed areas of the skin. It can be detected by physical examination, skin biopsy, X rays, MRI scan, CT scan, and PET.


Also Read:

Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 20, 2021

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