Skin Cancer: Merkel Cell Carcinoma

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After Treatment TOPICS

Lifestyle changes during and after Merkel cell carcinoma treatment

You can’t change the fact that you have had cancer. What you can change is how you live the rest of your life—making choices to help you stay healthy and feel as well as you can. This can be a time to look at your life in new ways. Maybe you are thinking about how to improve your health over the long term. Some people even start during cancer treatment.

Can I lower my risk of Merkel cell carcinoma progressing or coming back?

Most people want to know if there are specific lifestyle changes they can make to reduce their risk of cancer progressing or coming back. Unfortunately, for most cancers there isn’t much solid evidence to guide people. This doesn’t mean that nothing will help – it’s just that for the most part this is an area that hasn’t been well studied. Most studies have looked at lifestyle changes as ways of preventing cancer in the first place, not slowing it down or keeping it from coming back.

At this time, not enough is known about Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) to say for sure if there are things you can do that will be helpful.

We do know that having a weakened immune system can raise the risk of dying from MCC, but this is often something people can’t do much about. For example, some people need to take immune-suppressing medicines because they’ve had an organ transplant or because they have an autoimmune disease. But for others, there may be things you can do to help keep your immune system strong. For example, it’s very important for people infected with HIV to take their medicines to help keep the infection under control.

We also know that people who have had MCC are at higher risk for developing other types of skin cancer. Because of this, it’s important to limit your exposure to UV rays (from the sun or tanning beds) and to examine your skin every month for signs of MCC coming back or possible new skin cancers. Skin cancers that are found early are typically much easier to treat than those found at a later stage. (See Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection for information on how to protect your skin and do a skin self-exam.)

Adopting healthy behaviors such as not smoking, eating well, being active, and staying at a healthy weight may also help, but no one knows for sure. Still, we do know that these types of changes can have positive effects on your health that can extend beyond your risk of MCC or other cancers.

So far, no dietary supplements have been shown to clearly help lower the risk of MCC progressing or coming back. This doesn’t mean that none will help, but it’s important to know that none have been proven to do so.

Make healthier choices

For many people, a diagnosis of cancer helps them focus on their health in ways they may not have thought much about in the past. Are there things you could do that might make you healthier? Maybe you could spend less time in the sun, try to eat better, or get more exercise. Maybe you could cut down on alcohol, or give up tobacco. Even things like keeping your stress level under control might help. Now is a good time to think about making changes that can have positive effects for the rest of your life. You will feel better and you will also be healthier.

You can start by working on the things that worry you most. Get help with those that are harder for you. For instance, if you are thinking about quitting smoking and need help, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.

Eating better

Eating right can be hard for anyone, but it can get even tougher during and after some types of cancer treatment. Treatment may change your sense of taste. Nausea can be a problem. You may not feel like eating and lose weight when you don’t want to. Or you might have gained weight that you can’t seem to lose. All of these things can be very frustrating.

If treatment causes weight changes or eating or taste problems, do the best you can and keep in mind that these problems usually get better over time. You may find it helps to eat small meals every 2 to 3 hours until you feel better. You may also want to ask your cancer team about seeing a dietitian, an expert in nutrition who can give you ideas on how to deal with side effects of these treatments.

One of the best things you can do after cancer treatment is start healthy eating habits. You may be surprised at the long-term benefits of some simple changes, like increasing the variety of healthy foods you eat. Getting to and staying at a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, and limiting your alcohol intake may lower your risk for a number of types of cancer, as well as having many other health benefits.

You can get more information in Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: Answers to Common Questions.

Rest, fatigue, and exercise

Extreme tiredness, called fatigue, is very common in people treated for cancer. This is not a normal tiredness, but a bone-weary exhaustion that often doesn’t get better with rest. For some people, fatigue lasts a long time after treatment, and can make it hard for them to be active and do other things they want to do. But exercise can help reduce fatigue. Studies have shown that patients who follow an exercise program tailored to their personal needs feel better physically and emotionally and can cope better, too.

If you were sick and not very active during treatment, it’s normal for your fitness, endurance, and muscle strength to decline. Any plan for physical activity should fit your situation. If you haven’t been active in a few years, you will have to start slowly, maybe just by taking short walks.

Talk with your health care team before starting anything. Get their opinion about your exercise plans. Then, think about finding an exercise buddy so you’re not doing it alone. Involving family or friends when starting a new activity program can give you that extra boost of support to keep you going when the push just isn’t there.

If you are very tired, you will need to learn to balance activity with rest. It’s OK to rest when you need to. Sometimes it’s really hard for people to take time to rest when they are used to working all day or taking care of a household, but this is not the time to push yourself too hard. Listen to your body and rest when you need to. (For more on dealing with fatigue and other treatment side effects, see the Physical Side Effects section of our website.

Keep in mind exercise can improve your physical and emotional health.

  • It improves your heart fitness.
  • Along with a good diet, it will help you get to and stay at a healthy weight.
  • It makes your muscles stronger.
  • It reduces fatigue and helps you have more energy.
  • It can help lower anxiety and depression.
  • It can make you feel happier.
  • It helps you feel better about yourself.

Getting regular physical activity also plays a role in helping to lower the risk of some cancers, as well as having other health benefits.

Last Medical Review: 04/13/2015
Last Revised: 02/09/2016