The death of singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett was directly connected to the sunshine he loved and celebrated with his music. Buffett’s cause of death is listed as Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer diagnosed in less than 3,000 people each year in the U.S.
So, how can you spot (and prevent) Merkel cell carcinoma, and other kinds of skin cancer? Here’s what Dr. Naka has to say.
How to spot Merkel cell carcinoma
Merkel cells are found in the top layer of skin and are closely related to nerve endings.
“Merkel cell carcinoma often happens when something – and we believe that to be exposure to UV rays from the sun – causes the cells grow out of control,” says Dr. Naka.
It’s generally found on sun-exposed areas such as the head and neck, or on the arms and legs.
“It presents as a rapidly enlarging, pink or skin-color growth in areas most exposed to UV rays. The growth is painless but firm,” she explains.
Some people are more at risk
Risk factors for Merkel Cell Carcinoma, include:
- UV light exposure either natural sunlight or tanning beds.
- A weakened immune system, either by age, disease, medications, etc.
- Being a Caucasian male over 50 years of age.
Merkel cell carcinoma is more aggressive than other forms of skin cancer.
Merkel cell carcinoma less common than other forms of skin cancer, like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. It’s also more aggressive than most, with high rates of recurrence and metastasis, or spreading of cancer to other parts of the body.
When caught early enough, however, there is a 75% chance of living for at least five years. Buffett, according to his website, was 76 and had been living with cancer for about four years.
4 steps to protect yourself from skin cancer
While there’s no way to prevent this form of skin cancer, you can remember simple skin protection steps against the sun’s rays, Dr. Naka says. That includes:
- Stay in the shade when possible outdoors.
- Wear a mineral sunscreen containing at least 30 SPF, especially on your face, whenever you’re outside, even on cloudy days. Don’t forget your ears.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours when outdoors.
- See a board-certified dermatologist yearly for a full body skin exam.