What is Merkel cell skin cancer? What to look out for and how to prevent it

After four years with a Merkel cell skin cancer diagnosis, Jimmy Buffet died Friday at 76 in his Long Island, New York, home.

Dr. Jason Chesney, director and chief administrative officer for the University of Louisville's Brown Cancer Center, said the "Margaritaville" singer had many of the signs of late-stage Merkel cell carcinoma. It's one of the rarer, more difficult-to-treat forms of cancer.

Still, Buffett “passed away peacefully,” said a statement about his death, “surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs," according to a report from USA TODAY.

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Here are a few things to look out for when it comes to Merkel cell skin cancer and ways to prevent it.

How rare is Merkel cell skin cancer?

Chesney said that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 cases a year in the United States.

"It's very rare in a country with over 300 million people in it," he said.

How can Merkel cell skin cancer be treated?

Early detection is one of the keys to treating Merkel cell carcinoma, Chesney said. Many patients are in the late stages when they see a doctor, and age is a factor. Patients typically present after 70, and that's related to a waning immune system.

Chesney said even getting to see a primary care doctor can help with detecting the cancer early.

"If it's caught early, it's surgery, plus, minus a little bit of radiation," Chesney said. "If it's caught in what I would call an intermediate stage, stage three where it's involved the lymph nodes, it can be just surgery and some radiation to local lymph nodes."

A few years ago, Chesney said, it was found that immunotherapies are more effective for later stages than historic chemotherapy and drugs previously used to treat Merkel cell carcinoma.

What are other common types of skin cancer?

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common types of skin cancers, Chesney said. They can both be handled with surgery.

There are also about 70,000 cases a year in the U.S. of melanoma, Chesney said, and that's the one that most people know.

How do I know if I should see a doctor?

Whereas melanoma looks like a dark mole with jagged edges, Merkel cell carcinoma presents like a pimple, Chesney said. It would be red to purple and not have a head and isn't something you can pop. If that's growing on you, it can be just as or more dangerous as melanoma.

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How can I prevent skin cancer?

Chesney said to prevent the two deadliest types of skin cancer, melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma, one should reduce sun exposure. Staying out of the sun during peak hours — 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. — wearing UV-resistant clothing and using sunscreen are ways people can minimize their chances of skin cancer.

Contact reporter Rae Johnson at RNJohnson@gannett.com. Follow them on Twitter at @RaeJ_33

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Merkel cell skin cancer: What to look for and how to prevent it