Skin Cancer Home > Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Making a Diagnosis

Merkel cell carcinoma is difficult to diagnose, because Merkel cells often resemble cells that are found in other types of cancer, especially some types of lung cancer. In order to diagnose a person with Merkel cell carcinoma, the healthcare provider will need to:
  • Perform a biopsy
  • Check the skin and examine the lymph nodes for signs of swelling
  • Take a blood cell count
  • Order a liver function test
  • Order a CT scan.

Current Treatments for Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Merkel cell carcinoma is uncommon and is difficult to diagnose; therefore, patients may want to get a second opinion about their diagnosis before starting treatment.
Treatment for Merkel cell carcinoma will depend on the:
Specific treatment may include:
  • Surgery to remove the cancer
  • Radiation therapy (using high-dose x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells)
  • Chemotherapy (using drugs to kill cancer cells).
The most common form of treatment for Merkel cell carcinoma is surgery. With surgery, the tumor will be removed, along with a border of healthy tissue. If the tumor is too large to be removed, or if it is located in a place where removal would be difficult or dangerous, the patient may need radiation or chemotherapy to try to shrink the tumor.
Nearby, or regional, lymph nodes are often removed in Merkel cell carcinoma because they may contain cancer cells. In some cases, doctors will perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy.
A sentinel lymph node biopsy entails the following steps:
  • The doctor will inject a dye or radioactive substance near the tumor
  • This material flows into the first lymph nodes where cancer is likely to spread (the sentinel nodes)
  • These nodes are then removed and checked for cancer
  • Radiation therapy may be directed at the site of the surgery and to nearby lymph nodes to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
(Click Treatment for Merkel Cell Carcinoma for more information about treatment.)
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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