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What to Know about the Cancer that Claimed Jimmy Buffett

Image from Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

This weekend, we lost a beloved musical icon who came to represent a sun-soaked subculture. When Jimmy Buffett lost his four-year battle against Merkel cell carcinoma, the “Margaritaville” singer’s final act was to shed light on this rare and aggressive form of skin cancer.

“If caught early, Merkel cell carcinoma has a five-year survival rate of 75%. But once the disease has spread, the likelihood of five-year survival drops to 24%,” said Steven Wang, M.D., medical director of dermatologic oncology at Hoag Family Cancer Institute and a fellowship-trained dermatologist and specialty skin cancer surgeon. “This is why early detection and early treatment is so critical. The one message I hope people take from Jimmy Buffett’s passing is that it is essential to see a dermatologist regularly for screenings.”

To schedule a screening, call your doctor or visit Dr. Wang shared some insights about the rare, but deadly disease:

What Does Merkel Cell Carcinoma Look Like? “It will first present as a flesh-colored or bluish-red nodule, often on your face, head or neck,” Dr. Wang said. “It can grow quickly and spread to other parts of your body. Treatment options will depend on whether the cancer has spread beyond the skin.”

Who is At Risk? Merkel cell carcinoma is diagnosed about 2,500 times a year in the U.S., making it a rare disease that is not as well studied as melanoma and other skin cancers.

It most often develops in people 70 and older. Men are twice as likely to develop this type of cancer, and 90% of people who have it are white. “If you notice a mole or bump that is changing shape, size or color – or if it bleeds easily, make an appointment with your doctor,” Dr. Wang said.

What Is Skin Screening Like? Skin exams involve a physical exam, in which doctors examine your skin for unusual moles and other growths. If your doctor finds something unusual, they may conduct a biopsy, in which they remove a tumor or sample of the tumor to analyze in a lab for signs of cancer. At Hoag, specialty technologies are available to detect skin cancers at early stages while avoiding unnecessary skin biopsies.

How is Merkel Cell Carcinoma Treated? Treatment will depend on the progression of the disease and can include surgery, radiation, immunotherapy and chemotherapy. Dr. Wang is a recognized leader in Mohs surgery, in which thin layers of tissue are methodically removed and analyzed under a microscope to see whether they contain cancer cells. Layers of skin are removed until cancer cells are no longer visible in the tissue. “This method reduces scarring and prevents the removal of healthy tissue, while ensuring a tumor-free skin border,” Dr. Wang said.

To schedule a screening today, visit