Skin Cancer: Merkel Cell Carcinoma

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

Can Merkel cell carcinoma be prevented?

The risk of getting Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is low, but there are things you can do that might help reduce your risk. These might also lower your risk of getting more common types of skin cancer, or even other types of cancer.

Limit your exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays

The most important way to lower your risk of skin cancers (including MCC) is to limit your exposure to UV rays. Practice sun safety when you are outdoors.

Seek shade

Simply staying in the shade is one of the best ways to limit your UV exposure.

“Slip! Slop! Slap! ®… and Wrap”

If you are going to be in the sun, this catchphrase can help you remember some of the key steps you can take to protect yourself from UV rays:

  • Slip on a shirt.
  • Slop on sunscreen.
  • Slap on a hat.
  • Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and sensitive skin around them.

Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps

Many people believe the UV rays of tanning beds are harmless. This is not true. Tanning lamps give out UV rays, which can cause long-term skin damage and can contribute to skin cancer. Most skin doctors and health organizations recommend not using tanning beds and sun lamps.

Protect children from the sun

Children need special attention, since they tend to spend more time outdoors and can burn more easily. Parents and other caregivers should protect children from excess sun exposure by using the steps above. Children need to be taught about the dangers of too much sun exposure as they become more independent.

To learn more about protecting yourself in the sun…

For more detailed information on how to protect yourself and your family from UV exposure, see Skin Cancer: Prevention and Early Detection.

Avoid weakening your immune system (when possible)

Having a weakened immune system increases the risk of getting MCC.

Some people need to take medicines to suppress their immune system. This includes people who have had organ transplants and some people with autoimmune diseases. People with cancer also sometimes need to take medicines such as chemotherapy that can lower their immune function. For these people, the benefit from taking these medicines will likely far outweigh the small overall increased risk of getting MCC.

Infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can weaken the immune system, which increases a person’s risk for MCC (and some other cancers). Avoiding known risk factors for HIV infection, such as intravenous (IV) drug use and having unprotected sex with many partners, can also lower your risk of getting MCC and many other types of cancer. (For more information, see HIV Infection, AIDS, and Cancer.)

Last Medical Review: 04/13/2015
Last Revised: 04/27/2015