Skin Cancer: Merkel Cell Carcinoma

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Can Merkel cell carcinoma be found early?

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) and many other skin cancers can often be found early, when they are likely to be easier to treat.

Skin self-exam

You can play an important role in finding skin cancer early. Learn the patterns of moles, blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your skin so that you’ll notice any changes.

It’s important to check all over your skin, preferably once a month. Self-exams are best done in a well-lit room in front of a full-length mirror. Use a hand-held mirror for areas that are hard to see, such as the backs of your thighs.

All areas should be examined, including your palms and soles, scalp, ears, nails, and your back. (For a more thorough description of a skin self-exam, see our document Skin Cancer: Prevention and Early Detection.) A friend or family member can also help you with these exams, especially for those hard-to-see areas, such as your scalp and back.

Be sure to show your doctor any areas that concern you and ask your doctor to look at areas that may be hard for you to see.

Spots on the skin that are new or changing in size, shape, or color should be seen by a doctor promptly. Any unusual sore, lump, blemish, marking, or change in the way an area of the skin looks or feels may be a sign of skin cancer or a warning that it might occur. The skin might become scaly or crusty or begin oozing or bleeding. It may feel itchy, tender, or painful. Redness and swelling may develop.

Merkel cell tumors usually appear as firm, pink, red, or purple lumps or bumps on sun-exposed areas of the skin. They are not usually painful, but they can grow quickly and can sometimes open up as ulcers or sores. (See the next section, “Signs and symptoms of Merkel cell carcinoma,” for a more detailed description of what to look for.)

Exam by a health care professional

As part of a routine cancer-related checkup, your doctor or other health care professional should check your skin carefully. He or she should be willing to discuss any concerns you might have about this exam.

Regular skin exams are especially important for people who are at high risk of MCC or other skin cancers, such as people with reduced immunity (for example, those who have had an organ transplant). Talk to your doctor about how often you should have your skin examined.


Last Medical Review: 12/31/2013
Last Revised: 12/31/2013