How are Merkel cell carcinomas treated?
General treatment information
Once Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) has been diagnosed and staged, your cancer care team will discuss your treatment options with you. Depending on your situation, you may have different types of doctors on your treatment team. These doctors may include:
- A dermatologist: a doctor who treats diseases of the skin
- A surgical oncologist (or oncologic surgeon): a doctor who uses surgery to treat cancer
- A medical oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with medicines such as chemotherapy
- A radiation oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with radiation therapy
Many other specialists might be part of your treatment team as well, including physician assistants (PAs), nurse practitioners (NPs), nurses, nutrition specialists, social workers, and other health professionals. To learn more about who may be on your cancer care team, see Health Professionals Associated With Cancer Care.
Based on the stage of the cancer and other factors, your treatment options may include:
Sometimes more than one type of treatment is used. Your treatment options will be based on the stage (extent) of the cancer, as well as other factors such as your overall health and personal preferences.
It’s important to discuss all of your treatment options as well as their possible side effects with your treatment team to help make the decision that best fits your needs. If there is anything you don’t understand, ask to have it explained. (See the section “What should you ask your doctor about Merkel cell carcinoma?” for some questions to ask.)
MCC is not common, so most doctors are unlikely to have seen or treated many cases. Even at major medical centers, where doctors are more likely to have experience with MCC, not all doctors agree on the best way to treat these cancers. If time allows, getting a second opinion from a team of experts is often a good idea. It can give you more information and help you feel good about the treatment plan that you choose.
Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. In some cases, they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.
If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service at 1-800-303-5691 for a list of studies that meet your medical needs, or see the Clinical Trials section on our website to learn more.
Considering complementary and alternative methods
You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.
Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.
Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision. See the Complementary and Alternative Medicine section of our website to learn more.
Help getting through cancer treatment
Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.
The American Cancer Society also has programs and services – including rides to treatment, lodging, support groups, and more – to help you get through treatment. Call our National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345 and speak with one of our trained specialists on call 24 hours a day, every day.
Last Medical Review: 04/13/2015
Last Revised: 02/09/2016