Rare and aggressive: Understanding the skin cancer that took Jimmy Buffett’s life

For a man synonymous with life in the sun, a skin cancer diagnosis can’t be a total shock to Jimmy Buffett fans. But, as many “parrotheads” learned after his death, the kind that he got, Merkel cell carcinoma, is one of the least common forms of cancer. It’s also much more aggressive.

Out of the different types of skin cancer that are out there, “Merkel cell carcinoma is probably the fourth skin cancer we think about,” said Dr. Vishal Patel, an associate professor of dermatology and oncology at the George Washington University School of Medicine.

“This skin cancer is much more rare, it’s much more unusual to see this and it is much more aggressive,” Patel said. “Some consider it the most aggressive form of skin cancer, meaning that patients tend to have higher rates of death when they have this skin cancer.”

Typically, cancerous cells are on the surface of the skin. But Merkel cells are a more specialized cell — the ones involved in sensory touch and neural transmissions from the skin. When it becomes cancerous, he said, it takes on a different look than most other types of skin cancer.

“Merkel cell can be the color of your skin. It can be a bluish, red kind of vascular appearing, as a lot of blood vessels,” said Patel. “On the surface, it’s generally on the face, head or neck, but it sometimes looks like a cyst, or a boil, or something that doesn’t look like it’s a ‘one or the other’ skin cancers.”

In the case of Merkel cell skin cancer, it tends to be found in older patients. While most of the time it’s related to overexposure in the sun, “there’s also a subset of tumors that are due to an infection from a virus. And those are ones that patients tend to do better and respond better to treatment,” said Patel.

He said to always use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and be diligent about reapplying it to your skin. Using an SPF 50 instead of 30 doesn’t mean you can take more time between applications either. And even after that, he said it’s still important to pay attention to your body.

“What I tell patients is if you have something new, it looks different, you don’t remember it, it’s not like your other spots, that’s what you should have checked out,” said Patel. “But certainly Merkel cell can be a little bit tricky to pick up.”

Learn more about Merkel cell carcinoma on the Mayo Clinic website.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up