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Surgery is the main treatment for most Merkel cell carcinomas (MCCs). Different types of surgery might be done, depending on each person's situation.
Some sort of surgery is needed to diagnose MCC or find out if it has spread.
In many cases, a skin biopsy is done to remove a suspicious spot even before the doctor suspects it might be MCC (see Tests for Merkel cell carcinoma ). This can be thought of as a type of surgery, but it’s not enough surgery to treat MCC. If MCC is diagnosed from the biopsy, a wide excision (described below) is used to remove more skin and other nearby tissues.
Even in people who have MCC with no obvious spread to nearby lymph nodes (or distant organs), about 1 out of 3 have cancer cells in their lymph nodes when the nodes are looked at with a microscope. Because of this, a sentinel lymph node biopsy (described in Tests for Merkel Cell Carcinoma) is a very important part of determining the stage of the cancer. The results of the SLNB are also helpful when making treatment plans and discussing outcomes.
It’s important that the SLNB be done before a wide excision is used to remove more skin and other tissues from the main tumor site. This helps ensure the lymph drainage is intact so the results of the SLNB are accurate.
If the SLNB is negative (the sentinel nodes do not contain cancer cells), no more lymph node surgery is needed because it’s very unlikely the cancer would have spread beyond this point. (But radiation therapy might still be given to the nearby lymph nodes just in case.)
If cancer cells are found in the sentinel node(s), the other nearby lymph nodes are often taken out and checked, too. This is called a lymph node dissection (see below). Radiation might be given to the area after the lymph node dissection. (Sometimes radiation might be used instead of doing a lymph node dissection.)
When a diagnosis of MCC is made by skin biopsy, the tumor site will most likely need to be surgically cut out (excised) to help make sure the cancer has been removed completely. This surgery might cure MCC if it hasn’t spread beyond the skin.
Drugs to numb the area (local anesthesia) are put into the skin with a small needle (injected) to numb it before the excision. The surgeon then cuts out the tumor, along with some of the normal skin at the edges (including under the tumor). The normal, healthy skin around the edges of the cancer is called the margin. The skin is stitched back together afterward. This will leave a scar.
The removed tissue sample is then sent to a lab, where it's tested and checked with a microscope to make sure that no cancer cells are at the edges of the skin that was removed.
Wide excision differs from an excisional biopsy used to diagnose MCC. The margins are wider (usually at least 1/2 inch). This is because the diagnosis is already known, and the doctor is trying to be sure all of the cancer cells are removed.
The margins can also vary based on where the cancer is and other factors. For instance, if MCC is on the face, the margins may be smaller to avoid large scars or other problems. Smaller margins may increase the risk of the cancer coming back, so be sure to discuss the options with your doctor.
In rare cases, where the cancer is on a finger or toe and has grown deep into the skin, the treatment might mean of all or part of that digit needs to be removed (amputated).
Mohs surgery is sometimes used when the goal is to save as much healthy skin as possible, such as with cancers around the eye. It’s done by a doctor with special training.
Using the Mohs technique, the doctor removes the tumor and a margin of normal-looking skin and then checks it under a microscope. If cancer cells are seen at the edges of the removed tissue (the sample), another layer of skin is removed and examined. This is repeated until the skin samples do not have cancer cells in them. This process is slow, often taking several hours, but it allows the doctor to save the normal skin near the tumor.
MCC often spreads to nearby lymph nodes. If cancer is found in the nearby lymph nodes (on a sentinel lymph node biopsy or any other type of biopsy), a lymph node dissection is usually done.
In this operation, the surgeon removes all of the lymph nodes near the primary tumor. For instance, if the MCC is found on an arm, the surgeon would remove the underarm (axillary) lymph nodes on that side of the body. These nodes are where cancer cells would be most likely to travel first.
This type of surgery is done in an operating room where drugs are used to put you into a deep sleep (general anesthesia). As with any major operation, complications can include reactions to anesthesia, bleeding, blood clots, and infections. Most people will have soreness or pain for some time after surgery. This can be helped with medicines, if needed.
A full lymph node dissection can cause some long-term side effects. One of the most troublesome is called lymphedema. Lymph nodes in the groin or under the arm normally help drain fluid from the limbs. If they are removed, fluid could build up. This can cause limb swelling, which may or may not go away. If severe enough, it can cause skin problems and an increased risk of infections in the limb. (Sentinel lymph node biopsy is less likely to cause this problem.) For more on this, see our section on Lymphedema.
After removing large skin cancers, it may not be possible to stretch the nearby skin enough to stitch the edges of the wound together. In these cases, healthy skin may be taken from another part of the body and grafted over the wound to help it heal and look better after surgery. Other reconstructive surgical procedures can also be helpful in some cases.
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.
Brady M, Spiker AM. Cancer, Skin, Merkel Cell. [Updated 2017 Dec 22]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2018 Jan.
Cestaro G, Quarto G, DE Monti M, et al. New and emerging treatments for metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma. Panminerva Med. 2018;60(1):39-40.
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 August 15, 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 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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