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Can Merkel Cell Carcinoma Be Found Early?

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) and many other skin cancers often can be found early, when they're small, haven't spread, and are likely to be easier to treat.

Skin self-exam

While the American Cancer Society doesn't have guidelines for the early detection of skin cancer, knowing your own skin is important in 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 recommend checking your own skin 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 of your skin, including your palms and soles, scalp, ears, nails, and your back. To learn more about how to examine your skin, see How to Do a Skin Self-exam. A friend or family member can also help you with these exams, especially for those hard-to-see places, like your scalp and back.

Be sure to show your doctor any skin changes that concern you and have them look at areas that may be hard for you to see. Any spots on your skin that are new or changing in size, shape, or color should be seen by a doctor right away. If you can’t see your doctor soon, you might want to take good close-up photos of the area so your doctor can see if it's 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 start 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 usually don't hurt, but they can grow quickly and can sometimes open up as ulcers or sores.

Exam by a health care professional

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

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 (like those who have had an organ transplant). Talk to your doctor about your skin cancer risk and 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 oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing. Seattle Multidisciplinary MCC Team, University of Washington MCC Research, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance/Skin Cancer. Symptoms & appearance of Merkel cell carcinoma. Accessed at on  August 8, 2018.

National Cancer Institute. Merkel Cell Carcinoma Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. May 2, 2018. Accessed at on August 8, 2018.

Last Revised: October 9, 2018

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