Tragic Loss of Jimmy Buffet Spotlights Merkel Cell Carcinoma, a Rare But Serious Skin Cancer

Many are still mourning the loss of Jimmy Buffet, so memorable as an icon who serenaded us with visions of paradise, margaritas in hand and toes in the sand. But what adds an even more somber note to this tragedy is the revelation that he died of a rare but aggressive form of skin cancer called Merkel Cell Cacinoma.  And it leads us to wonder about just how common and concerning it truly is.

Fewer than 3,000 people are diagnosed with Merkel Cell Carcinoma (MCC) annually.  But its incidence is growing rapidly, with research showing that between 2000 and 2013 the number of diagnosed cases increased more than 95%. Sadly, that’s a higher rate of increase than melanoma and all solid tumors combined.

Merkel Cell Carcinoma typically presents as a painless, firm, and often rapidly growing bump or nodule on the skin. While the appearance can vary, there are some common characteristics to look for:

Color.  The nodule is usually red, pink, or purple. It may also appear as a flesh-colored bump.

Size.   Merkel Cell Carcinomas are typically small, measuring less than 2 centimeters (about 0.8 inches) in diameter, but they can grow larger.

Texture.  The bump is often shiny and smooth, and it may have a slightly raised or dome-shaped appearance.

Borders.  MCC may have well-defined or irregular borders.

Ulceration.  In some cases, the nodule may develop an open sore or ulceration.

Location.  MCC commonly occurs on sun-exposed areas of the skin, such as the face, neck, and arms, but it can appear on any part of the body.

Other factors strongly associated with the development of Merkel Cell Carcinoma include age (over 65 years), fair skin, history of extensive sun exposure, chronic immune suppression (e.g., kidney or heart transplantation or HIV), and the Merkel Cell polyomavirus.


Preventative Measures:  Heading off a Serious Diagnosis

 Malignant melanoma rightfully gets all the attention for being the deadliest skin cancer.   But in reality, Merkel Cell Carcinoma, while much less common,  is about three to five times more likely to cause death. The good news is that it can be treated, and early detection greatly increases the likelihood of a good outcome.

If you see something suspicious, it’s important to get in to see your dermatologist right away. Treatment becomes increasingly difficult once the disease has spread, but new options are now available. Thanks to advances in the field of immunotherapy, Merkel Cell Carcinoma survival rates are improving.  Immunotherapy is the use of medicines that help a person’s own immune system find and destroy cancer cells. This is a promising form of treatment for Merkel Cell Carcinoma, especially if it has spread to other parts of the body.

We can’t do a story on skin cancer without emphasizing the need to protect your skin from the sun. It feels great, especially in Buffet’s famed Margaritaville, but it causes cellular damage that leads to all kinds of skin cancers. So here are all the tools in our box to protect yourself from the sun:


  • Cover Up – Clothing can provide a great barrier to the sun. Choose tightly woven fabric to cover up when you are outside, especially during the sun’s strongest hours, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Slather Up – Have we mentioned the importance of sunscreen? Dermatologists will all tell you that it is a daily must. Talk to your Midwest Dermatology physician, nurse or even our receptionist. They are all trained to answer your questions and help you find a sunscreen that you will want to use daily,  and that’s recommended by your board-certified Midwest Dermatology physician.
  • Get Shady – Stay in the shade when you can. Whether you are at a friend’s pool, a youth soccer or baseball game, or just a day outside, seek out a shady area that provides a barrier from damaging ultraviolet light.
  • Regular Total Body Skin Exam – Regular skin cancer check-ups are the best way for your Midwest Dermatology physician to get to know your skin and help you locate any lesions that are cause for concern. With early detection playing such a crucial role in successful treatment, a regular total body skin check is your best bet for a good outcome from any skin cancer.

Any form of skin cancer is dangerous to our overall health and well-being and some can lead to a shorter life span.  By learning what we can about Merkel Cell Carcinoma and taking steps to prevent it, we might just avoid heartbreak and sorrow.

To schedule an appointment to check out a suspicious growth, or for a full body skin exam, at any of our six locations, call us at (402) 933-0800 or (402) 371-3564 in Norfolk.  Or schedule online at


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