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Jimmy Buffett died of a rare form of skin cancer: What is Merkel cell carcinoma?

The "Margaritaville" singer died on Friday at the age of 76, after battling cancer for four years.

Jimmy Buffett died on Friday due to a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma. (Photo by Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)
Jimmy Buffett died on Friday due to a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma. (Photo by Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Details of the late Jimmy Buffett's cause of death have been announced, with a statement revealing the "Margaritaville" singer died of a rare, aggressive skin cancer.

The 76-year-old had been fighting Merkel cell carcinoma, according to a statement on his website, which added that he was battling the disease for the past four years while still performing live.

News of the music legend's death shocked many fans on Friday, since the American artist was still performing up until July with a surprise show on Rhode Island.

"Jimmy passed away peacefully on the night of Sept. 1 surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs," a statement on his website and social media reads. "He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many."

But what is the rare form of skin cancer that Buffett died from? Read on to learn more.

What is Merkel cell carcinoma?

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare type of non-melanoma skin cancer. It starts in the Merkel cells, which help give the sense of touch and produce hormones. They're found in the hair follicles and epidermis, which is the deepest part of the top layer of skin.

This disease is also sometimes called neuroendocrine cancer of the skin or trabecular carcinoma.

What causes Merkel cell carcinoma?

Mayo Clinic states that it's unclear what causes Merkel cell carcinoma. Researchers only recently discovered that a common virus, called Merkel cell polyomavirus, plays a role in the development of this disease.

However, it's still uncertain how this virus leads to Merkel cell carcinoma. Since the virus is common, it's likely that other factors play a larger role.

For instance, being exposed to ultraviolet light — whether that's from natural sunlight or tanning beds — increases your risk for Merkel cell carcinoma.

An immunofluorescent staining of a Merkel cell carcinoma tumour tissue. (Photo by Isaac Brownell, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases/NIH)
An immunofluorescent staining of a Merkel cell carcinoma tumour tissue. (Photo by Isaac Brownell, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases/NIH)

What are the symptoms of Merkel cell carcinoma?

Merkel cell carcinoma usually appears on the face, head or neck. but it can still show up on any part of the skin, even on parts not often exposed to sunlight. It typically appears as a shiny or pearly bump that is often skin-coloured or bluish-red in tone.

Cleveland Clinic notes that people with darker skin tones might see these bumps appear on their legs, while younger people may get them on their torso.

The disease tends to grow and spread quickly, meaning new lumps may form on the surrounding skin.

Moreover, lymph nodes usually become larger than normal, particularly in the neck or under the arms.

Who's most at risk of getting Merkel cell carcinoma?

People with weakened immune systems — including those with HIV or taking medications that suppress the immune response — are most at risk for developing the disease.

It also more commonly occurs in people who have a history of other skin cancers, older adults above the age of 50 and people with lighter skin tones.

What's the outlook of someone who has Merkel cell carcinoma?

It's often that Merkel cell carcinoma will return after treatment, so it's common to see your health care provider regularly after getting diagnosed.

While many factors play a role in survival rates for the cancer, experts estimate that three out of four people who have Merkel cell carcinoma that hasn't spread are alive five years after their diagnosis. But if the cancer has become metastatic, meaning it has spread throughout the body, that survival rate drops to one in four.

How can you prevent getting Merkel cell carcinoma?

The best way to prevent getting Merkel cell carcinoma is by protecting yourself from sun damage.

Cleveland Clinic suggests applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 60 every day, even if you're spending the day indoors.

It's also best to avoid spending time outdoors between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., ditching the tanning bed and wearing clothes that cover your body while outside.

Finally, it's important to watch for changes in your skin and how to self examine. Most skin nodules don't turn into cancer, but getting a mole, freckle or bump that's changing in size, shape or colour checked out early increases the chances that treatment will succeed.

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