Merkel Cell Carcinoma Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking and too much sun exposure, can be changed. Others, like your age or family history, can’t be changed.

Having a risk factor for Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get it. Most people with risk factors never get MCC, while others with this disease may have few or no known risk factors.

There are a few known risk factors for MCC.

Infection with Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV)

Evidence of the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV) can be found in the cells of most Merkel cell carcinomas. But MCV is a common virus. Most people are infected with MCV at some point (often before the age of 20), but the infection doesn’t cause symptoms, and it rarely leads to MCC. Because of this, there are no recommended screening tests or treatments for MCV infection.

MCV was first discovered in 2008, so there’s still a lot that scientists don’t know about this virus. For example, it’s not clear how people are infected with MCV, exactly how it might cause MCC, or if infection with MCV is required before MCC can develop.

Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays is thought to be a major risk factor for most skin cancers, including MCC. UV rays damage the DNA inside skin cells. This can lead to skin cancer if this damage affects the DNA of genes that control skin cell growth.

From the sun: Sunlight is the main source of UV rays. Most MCCs start in areas of the body often exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, and arms. People who get a lot of sun exposure are at greater risk for MCC.

UV rays make up only a very small portion of the sun’s rays, but they are the main cause of the damaging effects of the sun on the skin.

From tanning beds: Tanning beds are another source of UV rays for some people. MCC is an uncommon cancer, and no studies have looked for a link between MCC and tanning bed use. But it stands to reason that more exposure to UV rays might increase the risk.

From psoriasis treatments: Some patients with psoriasis (a long-lasting inflammatory skin disease) are given medicines called psoralens along with UV light, which is known as PUVA treatments. This can increase the risk of developing MCC.

To learn more about the effects of UV rays on the skin and what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, see Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection.

Having light-colored skin

The risk of MCC is much higher for whites than for African Americans or Hispanics. This is probably due to the protective effect of darker skin against the damaging effects of UV rays.

Being older

The risk of MCC goes up as people get older. In fact, this cancer is very rare before the age of 50. The increased risk is probably related to skin damage caused by sun exposure over time and to the fact that people’s immune systems tend to become weaker as they get older.

Being male

Men are more likely than women to develop MCC. This might be because they tend to get more sun exposure.

Having a weakened immune system

The immune system defends the body against germs such as viruses. It also seems to help the body fight some cancers of the skin and other organs. People with weakened immune systems (from certain diseases or medical treatments) are more likely to develop some types of skin cancer, including MCC.

For example, people who get organ transplants usually are given drugs that weaken their immune system to help keep them from rejecting the new organ. This increases their risk of developing MCC. People with autoimmune diseases (such as lupus) sometimes take medicines that suppress the immune system, which might increase their risk.

People infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, often have weakened immune systems and are also at increased risk for MCC.

People with some types of blood cancers, such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or certain lymphomas, also tend to have weakened immune systems. This can be from the cancer itself or from its treatment. People with these cancers are more likely to get MCC.

MCCs in people with weakened immune systems tend to grow faster and are more likely to be life-threatening.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: April 13, 2015 Last Revised: May 23, 2016

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