Can Merkel Cell Carcinoma Be Found Early?

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

Skin self-exam

Although the American Cancer Society does not have guidelines for the early detection of skin cancer, knowing your own skin is important to finding skin cancer early. Learn the patterns of moles, blemishes, freckles, and other marks on your skin so that you’ll notice any changes.

Many doctors recopmmend checking your own 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.

Examine all areas, including your palms and soles, scalp, ears, nails, and your back. (For a more thorough description of a skin self-exam, see Skin Exams.) 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 have them look at areas that may be hard for you to see. Any spots on the skin that are new or changing in size, shape, or color should be seen by a doctor promptly. If you can’t see your doctor right away, you might want to take good close-up photos of the area so your doctor can see if the area is changing when you do get an appointment.

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 area might become red, swollen, scaly, crusty, or begin oozing or bleeding. It may feel itchy, tender, or painful.

Merkel cell tumors usually look like 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 Signs and Symptoms of Merkel Cell Carcinoma for a more detailed description of what to look for.)

Exam by a health care professional

Some doctors and other health care professionals will examine your skin as part of your routine health check-up.

Having regular skin exams is 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.

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: January 5, 2018

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