Doctors say early detection is the key to helping patients live longer. Jimmy Buffett was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma four years ago. But the little-known form of skin cancer has a high rate of recurrence and when it spreads, survival rates plummet. 

Dr Jessica Sheehan is with Derick Dermatology.

“Jimmy Buffett is the classic island lifestyle fair-skinned man,” she said.

His lifestyle – and age and skin type — likely played a role in his cancer diagnosis.

“The classic presentation is fair skinned older man or woman on the head and neck,” Sheehan said.

Merkel cell carcinoma stands out among more common forms of skin cancer.

“They usually start off looking like a sore or a pimple,” Sheehan said. “The key to a Merkel cell is they change quickly they are rapidly growing as opposed to a benign sore or some of the less aggressive skin cancers.”

In the U.S., there are just 3000 cases diagnosed annually. That’s 40 times less frequent than melanoma. The majority of patients are 65 and older.

“It’s very rare. I probably see a couple of cases annually out of thousands of patients, thousands of skin cancers,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan says the rare but aggressive form of skin cancer starts near the surface.

“It’s not deep, but these tend to go further down to the skin, go into the lymphatics and then go into the lymph nodes and go from there,” she said.

The first line of defense is surgical removal.

“If it’s caught early and they can be caught early the prognosis is 75% in five years,” Sheehan said.

That number plummets to about 25% once the cancer spreads. Radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy are all used to treat metastatic disease.

“It’s not that you don’t want to have an active outdoor lifestyle. If that is important to you and enjoy you need to be smart about it. Wear sunscreen be inside in peak sun hours, be in the shade as much as you can,” Sheehan said.

Regular skin checks are critical to spot any form of skin cancer. In Illinois, state law mandates coverage of skin screenings as part of preventive healthcare so insurance should pay for your potentially life-saving skin exams.

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