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Chemotherapy for Merkel Cell Carcinoma

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses anti-cancer drugs that are most commonly given into a vein (IV) or given by mouth. These drugs travel through the bloodstream to all parts of the body. This makes chemo useful for treating cancers that have spread to other organs.

Chemo is most likely to be helpful for MCC that has spread to other organs. So far it’s not clear if it can be helpful for cancers that are still just in the skin or that have only spread to nearby lymph nodes. Still, some doctors might still recommend it for these cancers.

Which chemo drugs are used to treat MCC?

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is rare, so it’s been hard to study the use of chemotherapy for MCC in clinical trials. Because of this, doctors often use chemo drugs that have been helpful in treating other types of fast-growing neuroendocrine tumors. The most commonly used drugs for MCCs that have spread include:

  • Cisplatin
  • Carboplatin
  • Etoposide
  • Topotecan

Most often, either cisplatin or carboplatin is used, often along with etoposide. Topotecan tends to have fewer serious side effects, so it might be a better option for some people who are older or have serious health problems.

Another combination of drugs that may be used is called CAV, which stands for cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, and vincristine.

These drugs are given intravenously (IV or into a vein), usually once every few weeks. They can often shrink MCC tumors for a time (or at least slow their growth and spread) and help relieve some symptoms. But these cancers tend to start growing again, even while you're getting chemo.

Possible side effects of chemotherapy for MCC

Chemo drugs can cause side effects. These depend on the type and dose of the drugs given and how long they are used. Common side effects can include:

These side effects usually go away over time once treatment is finished. Some drugs can have other effects that are not listed here, so be sure to talk with your cancer care team about what to expect.

There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, drugs can help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting. Tell your cancer care team about any side effects or changes you notice while getting chemo so they can be treated right away, before they get worse.

More information about chemotherapy

For more general information about how chemotherapy is used to treat cancer, see Chemotherapy.

To learn about some of the side effects listed here and how to manage them, see Managing Cancer-related Side Effects.

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.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®), Merkel Cell Carcinoma, Version 2.2018 -- June 15, 2018. Accessed at on August 15, 2018.

Tello TL, Coggshall K, Yom SS, Yu SS. Merkel cell carcinoma: An update and review: Current and future therapy. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2018;78(3):445-454.

Tetzlaff MT, Nagarajan P. Update on Merkel Cell Carcinoma. Head Neck Pathol. 2018;12(1):31-43.  

Last Revised: October 9, 2018

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