Skin Cancer: Merkel Cell Carcinoma

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Survival rates for Merkel cell carcinoma by stage

Survival rates are often used by doctors as a standard way of discussing a person’s prognosis (outlook). Some people may want to know the survival statistics for people in similar situations, while others may not find the numbers helpful, or may even not want to know them. If you don’t want to read about survival numbers for Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), stop reading here and skip to the next section.

The 5-year survival rate refers to the percentage of people who live at least 5 years after their cancer is diagnosed. Of course, many people live much longer than 5 years. To get 5-year survival rates, doctors look at people who were treated at least 5 years ago. Improvements in treatment since then may result in a better outlook for people now being diagnosed with MCC.

Five-year relative survival rates (such as the numbers below) compare the survival rates for patients with the cancer to those of people without the cancer. This is a better way to see the impact of cancer on survival.

The rates below are based on the stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis. When looking at survival rates, it’s important to understand that the stage of a cancer does not change over time, even if the cancer progresses. A cancer that spreads or comes back is still referred to by the stage it was given when it was first found, but more information is added to explain the current extent of the cancer. (And of course, the treatment plan is adjusted based on the change in cancer status.)

MCC is an uncommon type of cancer, so it’s hard to get accurate, up-to-date survival statistics for this disease, especially by individual stages. Overall, the 5-year survival rate for MCC is about 60%. It’s much higher if the cancer is found early as opposed to having spread to the lymph nodes or distant parts of the body.

The following survival rates are based on the outcomes of nearly 3,000 patients diagnosed with MCC from 1986 to 2000 and recorded in the National Cancer Data Base.


5-year Relative Survival Rate


About 80%


About 60%


About 60%


About 50%


About 45%


About 45%


About 25%


About 20%

Again, these numbers include some people who were diagnosed and treated many years ago, so the outlook for people now being diagnosed might be better.

Survival rates are based on previous outcomes of people who had the disease, but they can’t predict what will happen in any person’s case. The stage of a person’s cancer is important in estimating their outlook. But other factors can also be important, such as where the tumor is on the body, how thick it is, and how well the cancer responds to treatment. Even when taking these factors into account, survival rates are at best rough estimates. Your doctor can tell you how the numbers might apply to you, as he or she is familiar with your situation.

Other factors affecting survival

Other factors aside from stage may also affect survival. For example, studies have shown that people with MCC who have weakened immune systems, such as those who have had organ transplants or who are infected with HIV, tend to have a worse outlook. Older age has also been linked with a less favorable outlook.

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