Rare Skin Cancer is Uniquely Lethal

Although the Merkel cell skin cancer that took the life of Jimmy Buffett is approximately 40 times rarer than melanoma — the most common cause of skin cancer death — it is said to be rising in incidence. Even with its relative rarity, Merkel is still the second most common cause of skin cancer death. It can spread aggressively to other parts of the body. If not detected and treated early, the five-year survival rate can be as low as 24% versus a 75% survival rate if it is treated while still localized. Dermatologists say people who are fair-skinned, older than 50, and who are regularly exposed to the sun are at higher risk of developing skin cancer, including Merkel cell. This risk is even greater for Coloradans due to our elevation, our proportion of sunny days, and our tendency to enjoy the outdoors. (But note also that skin cancer can occur in areas not exposed to the sun.) Merkel cell skin cancer typically appears as a bump on the skin that is flesh-colored or reddish blue and about the size of a pencil eraser tip. If something like this appears and does not go away, dermatologists say get it checked. Skin cancer in general is actually the most common cancer diagnosis in the U.S., and anyone is susceptible. But most Americans fail to get regularly checked for it. The most common types of skin cancer are basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. Basal cell and squamous cell are statistically not very life-threatening if treated in a timely manner. Melanoma is more serious and more likely to spread. Some dermatologists suggest that persons over age 65 consider getting twice-yearly checks as opposed to the more common once-a-year checks.

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