Our 24/7 cancer helpline provides information and answers for people dealing with cancer. We can connect you with trained cancer information specialists who will answer questions about a cancer diagnosis and provide guidance and a compassionate ear.
Our highly trained specialists are available 24/7 via phone and on weekdays can assist through video calls and online chat. We connect patients, caregivers, and family members with essential services and resources at every step of their cancer journey. Ask us how you can get involved and support the fight against cancer. Some of the topics we can assist with include:
For medical questions, we encourage you to review our information with your doctor.
Immunotherapy is the use of medicines that help a person’s own immune system find and destroy cancer cells. This is a promising form of treatment for Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC), especially if it has spread to other parts of the body.
An important part of the immune system is its ability to keep itself from attacking normal cells in the body. To do this, it uses “checkpoint” proteins on immune cells, which act like switches that need to be turned on (or off) to start an immune response. Cancer cells sometimes use these checkpoints to keep the immune system from attacking them.
For example, PD-1 is a checkpoint protein on immune cells called T cells. It normally helps keep the T cells from attacking other cells in the body. When it attaches to PD-L1, a protein on some normal (and cancer) cells, it basically tells the T cell to leave the other cell alone. Some cancer cells have large amounts of PD-L1, which helps keep the immune system from attacking them.
Drugs that block either PD-1 or PD-L1 are known as checkpoint inhibitors. They can stop this binding and boost the body's immune response against cancer cells. Examples of checkpoint inhibitors that can be used to treat MCC include:
These drugs are given as an infusion into a vein (IV), usually every 2 to 6 weeks, depending on the drug.
These drugs have been shown to shrink or slow the growth of some advanced MCC tumors, sometimes even after other treatments have been tried.
Other immune checkpoint inhibitors are being studied for use against MCC as well.
Side effects of these types of drugs can include:
Other, more serious side effects occur less often:
Infusion reactions: Some people might have an infusion reaction while getting one of these drugs. This is like an allergic reaction. It can include fever, chills, flushing of the face, rash, itchy skin, wheezing, and trouble breathing. You might be given medicines before each infusion to help lower the risk of this happening.
Autoimmune reactions: These drugs work by basically removing one of the safeguards that helps keep the body’s immune system in check. Sometimes this can lead to the immune system attacking other parts of the body, which can cause serious or even life-threatening problems in the lungs, intestines, liver, hormone-making glands, kidneys, or other organs.
It’s very important to report any changes or new side effects to your health care team right away. If serious side effects do occur, treatment may need to be stopped.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Chan IS, Bhatia S, Kaufman HL, Lipson EJ. Immunotherapy for Merkel cell carcinoma: a turning point in patient care. J Immunother Cancer. 2018;6(1):23.
Merkelcell.org. Seattle Multidisciplinary MCC Team, University of Washington MCC Research, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance/Skin Cancer. Immunotherapy. Accessed at www.merkelcell.org/treatment/immunotherapy/ on Sept. 19, 2018.
National Cancer Institute. Merkel Cell Carcinoma Treatment (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version. February 1, 2018. Accessed at www.cancer.gov/types/skin/hp/merkel-cell-treatment-pdq on Sept. 19, 2018.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®), Merkel Cell Carcinoma, Version 2.2018 -- June 15, 2018. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/mcc.pdf on Sept. 19, 2018.
Uchi H. Merkel Cell Carcinoma: An Update and Immunotherapy. Front. Oncol. 2018;8(48):1-5.
Last Revised: March 27, 2023
Donate now so we can continue to provide access to critical cancer information, resources, and support to improve lives of people with cancer and their families.