Currently, there are no screening tests that can detect Merkel cell carcinoma before symptoms appear. However, the symptoms are primarily visual, so it’s often possible to notice abnormal changes shortly after they develop. When diagnosed early, this relatively rare type of skin cancer has a high cure rate and can be treated within minimal cosmetic effect. The renowned research team at Moffitt Cancer Center continues to work on developing new techniques to identify Merkel cell carcinoma as early as possible, leading to better patient outcomes and quality of life.
Unlike other types of skin cancer, such as melanoma, Merkel cell carcinomas lesions typically don’t exhibit unusual pigmentation, shapes or other characteristics. Instead, they are often seemingly harmless and are sometimes mistaken for insect bites and other minor skin irritations. For these reasons, any abnormal skin changes should promptly be brought to the attention of a medical professional, such as a dermatologist or other physician.
During a routine skin cancer screening, a medical professional can look for early signs of Merkel cell carcinoma. During this examination, he or she can:
- Thoroughly examine the entire surface of the skin, including areas that are regularly exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light, as well as those that are not, such as the soles of the feet and the areas between the toes
- Identify new growths, spots or bumps determine whether those skin changes might be cancerous or precancerous
- Explain how to perform a self-examination
- Provide individualized advice on skin cancer prevention
In the absence of a reliable screening test for Merkel cell carcinoma, it is important to take preventive measures, such as avoiding exposure to UV light from the sun and tanning beds. When outdoors, it’s always best to seek shade, wear protective clothing and sunglasses and use broad-spectrum sunscreen. Approximately one ounce of sunscreen should be applied before going outdoors (even on cloudy days) and reapplied every two hours (or more often when sweating or swimming).
Moffitt Cancer Center offers a unique mobile skin cancer screening program, the Mole Patrol®, which offers free screenings, education and sunscreen samples. If Merkel cell carcinoma or another types of skin cancer is suspected, a patient will receive follow-up recommendations to review with a physician. All patients are welcome to consult with the skin cancer experts at Moffitt, and no referrals are necessary.