When Merkel Cell Carcinoma Stops the Music — Remembering Jimmy Buffett

Sep 7, 2023

Last week’s news of Jimmy Buffett’s death surprised many and broke the hearts of his fans around the world. Known for hits like “Margaritaville,” “Come Monday,” and “Fins” to name just a few, Buffett’s songs delighted listeners for decades and his easy-breezy sun-worshiping lifestyle was both envied and admired. 

Unfortunately, the cause of his death, attributed to Merkel cell carcinoma, was an unintended consequence of those days spent in the sun, whether performing, boating, or as Buffett sang, “soakin’ up rays.” 

As with any high profile death, Buffett’s has brought attention to one of the rarest forms of skin cancer. As we mourn the loss of a tremendous personality and much-loved entertainer, the team at IMPACT Melanoma hopes that his loss converts to a heightened awareness of the importance of skin cancer prevention.  

What is Merkel cell skin cancer?

A rare form of skin cancer, Mayo Clinic offers the following facts on Merkel cell carcinoma, compiled from the approximate 3,000 cases diagnosed annually: 

  • 80% in people aged 70+
  • Men are twice as likely as women to develop this
  • 90% of cases are in people who are white

Typically, Merkel cell carcinoma begins on skin that has been exposed to the sun and appears as firm, pink, red or purple bumps or lumps. While this form of skin cancer is aggressive and fast-growing, these lesions are not usually painful.

Dr. Hensin Tsao, Director MGH Melanoma and Pigmented Lesion Center, Dermatology, Massachusetts General Hospital and member of IMPACT Melanoma’s Medical Advisory Committee, explains:

Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer that originates in Merkel cells, which are found at the base of the outermost layer of your skin and are involved in touch sensation. This cancer is most commonly found in older adults and on sun-exposed areas like the face and neck. Unlike melanomas, these are often red in color and can resemble other types of skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma. For most individuals, MCC is a direct result of ultraviolet damage. Therefore, lifelong use of sunscreen is a key part of prevention. Because it can spread quickly to other parts of the body, early diagnosis through regular visits with skin care professionals is crucial for better outcomes.

Many of us were shocked to read that Jimmy Buffet battled Merkel cell carcinoma for four years. It is always important to monitor any changes in your skin and to have a spouse, friend or partner look at areas that are tough to see: neck and back as examples.

Of course, we should all follow these recommendations to prevent skin cancer:

  1. Wear sunscreen and not just during the peak summer months. Protect yourself throughout the year. 
  2. Wear protective clothing. 
  3. Check your skin and monitor any changes in your skin. Schedule an annual skin checkup with a dermatologist. 

If you know of someone who has recently been diagnosed with skin cancer, please encourage them to leverage our Support Services for skin cancer patients, families and caregivers. 

Learn more about IMPACT Melanoma and the many programs we offer to raise awareness about skin cancer, to promote early detection and to reduce the incidence of melanoma.

Jimmy Buffet made a big impact in the music world and with his passing, it is likely his impact will continue to be significant in helping others. 

To support our mission, make a difference to help IMPACT Melanoma prevent skin cancer and save lives. 

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