Conditions & Treatments

Merkel Cell Cancer

Merkel cell cancer is also known as neuroendocrine cancer of the skin, or trabecular cancer.

Merkel Cell Cancer

What is Merkel cell cancer?

Merkel cell cancer is also known as neuroendocrine cancer of the skin, or trabecular cancer. Characterized by firm, shiny skin lumps, this rare cancer develops on or just beneath the skin and in the hair follicles. Merkel cell cancer most often is found on sun-exposed areas of skin, such as the neck and head. The cancer mostly affects white people over the age of 50. The cause of the cancer is unknown, but it is believed to be related to both sun exposure and suppression of the immune system.

What is the appearance of Merkel cell cancer tumors?

Merkel cell cancer tumors usually are firm, shiny skin lumps that do not hurt. The lumps, or tumors, may be red, pink, or blue and tend to grow very quickly.

How is Merkel cell cancer diagnosed?

Early diagnosis and treatment of Merkel cell cancer is crucial in preventing the cancer from spreading. The diagnosis is made with a biopsy, a procedure in which tumor samples are removed (with a needle or scalpel, or during surgery) for examination under a microscope to determine if cancer cells are present. However, diagnosis of Merkel cell cancer is difficult, as it can look like many other types of cancer.

Treatment for Merkel cell cancer

Specific treatment for Merkel cell cancer will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent and location of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, and therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor (including a border of healthy tissue). Since Merkel cell cancer grows fast and often spreads (metastasizes), your doctor may also remove nearby lymph nodes.

  • Radiation therapy. This therapy uses a radiation machine that emits X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This may be given after surgery or as part of the main treatment if surgery is not an option.

  • Chemotherapy. Treatment with drugs to destroy cancer cells used mainly for more advanced disease.

Treatment Programs


Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:



Imaging

  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
  • Cancer Imaging and Intervention
    The Cancer Imaging and Intervention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging combines leading-edge technology and the expertise of specialty-trained radiologists to provide comprehensive cancer detection and monitoring, plus image-guided treatments for specific types of cancer.
Department of Dermatology

  • Dermatologic Surgery Unit
    Massachusetts General Hospital's Dermatologic Surgery Unit offers world-class expertise in Mohs micrographic surgery and a number of other cosmetic surgical procedures
Department of Radiation Oncology

  • Melanoma and Skin Program
    Leading specialists in the Melanoma and Skin Program in the Department of Radiation Oncology use advanced radiation therapies and techniques to treat melanoma and other malignant skin tumors.
  • Head and Neck Program
    The Department of Radiation Oncology's Head-and-Neck Program specializes in providing state-of-the-art radiation therapy for patients with head-and-neck cancers, including complex forms of these diseases.
  • Sarcoma Program
    The Sarcoma Program in the Department of Radiation Oncology uses state-of-the-art radiation therapies to treat soft tissue and bone tumors, both malignant and benign.

The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.

Innovative care at the Cancer Center

Learn more about the latest treatment options for this condition at the Cancer Center