Treating Merkel Cell Skin Cancer

Once Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) has been diagnosed and staged, your cancer care team will discuss your treatment options with you. It’s important that you think carefully about your choices. You'll want to weigh the benefits of each treatment option against the possible risks and side effects.

Which treatments are used for MCC?

Based on the stage of the cancer and other factors, your treatment options might include:

Sometimes more than one type of treatment is used. Your treatment options will depend on the stage (extent) of the cancer, as well as other factors such as your overall health and personal preferences.

Which doctors treat MCC?

Depending on your options, 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 and immunotherapy.
  • A radiation oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with radiation therapy

Many other specialists might be part of your treatment team too, 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.

Making treatment decisions

It’s important to talk with your treatment team about all of your treatment options as well as their possible side effects. This will help you make the decision that best fits your needs. Some important things to think about include:

  • Your age and overall health
  • The stage (extent) of the cancer
  • Where the tumor is
  • The likelihood that treatment will cure the cancer (or help in some other way)
  • Your feelings about the possible side effects from treatment

If there's anything you don’t understand, ask to have it explained. See Questions To Ask About Merkel Cell Carcinoma for some examples.

Getting a second opinion

MCC is rare, 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 may be 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 learn more about promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. Sometimes they may be the only way to get newer treatments. They're the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they're not right for everyone.

If you'd like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital takes part in clinical trials. See Clinical Trials to learn a lot more.

Considering complementary and alternative methods

You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned. These might be used to treat your cancer or to relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, special diets, or other methods like 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 help relieve symptoms or help 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's 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.

Choosing to stop treatment or choosing no treatment at all

For some people, when treatments have been tried and are no longer controlling the cancer, it could be time to weigh the benefits and risks of continuing to try new treatments. Whether or not you continue treatment, there are still things you can do to help maintain or improve your quality of life. Learn more in If Cancer Treatments Stop Working.

Some people, especially if the cancer is advanced, might not want to be treated at all. There are many reasons you might decide not to get cancer treatment, but it’s important to talk this through with your doctors and your loved ones before you make this decision. Remember that even if you choose not to treat the cancer, you can and should still get help for pain or other symptoms.

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 can be 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, 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.

The treatment information given here is not official policy of the American Cancer Society and is not intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your cancer care team. It's intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together with your doctor. Your doctor may have reasons for suggesting a treatment plan different from these general treatment options. Don't hesitate to ask him or her questions about your treatment options.