Sun & Skin News

Jimmy Buffett’s Death Puts Merkel Cell Carcinoma in the Spotlight

By Victoria Kopec • January 3, 2024

Beloved singer-songwriter, Jimmy Buffett, lost his battle with Merkel cell carcinoma(MCC) on September 1, 2023. The sad news of his death sparked a surge of interest in this rare, aggressive and deadly skin cancer.  

Buffett was born on Christmas Day in 1946 and is best known for his hits “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” His persona and musical prowess captured the hearts of millions of devoted fans, known as “parrotheads,” with a unique blend of country, rock and tropical sound. He continued to perform after his diagnosis and throughout treatment until his death at age 76.  

In the days following Buffett’s passing, public interest in MCC skyrocketed, and awareness about this relatively unknown disease was at an all-time high. The Skin Cancer Foundation’s website experienced a steep traffic spike to pages containing information about MCC. This increased awareness is important because Merkel cell carcinoma, while dangerous, is treatable when identified at an early stage.  

More About MCC 

Merkel cell carcinoma is a rare and aggressive type of skin cancer that affects the top layer of skin, known as the epidermis. MCC is about three to five times more likely to be deadly than melanoma, and is 40 times rarer than melanoma, with about 3,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. every year.  

The disease has a high risk of metastasizing (spreading) within two to three years after initial diagnosis. Once MCC has spread, treatment becomes increasingly difficult. Fortunately, MCC survival rates are improving due to advances in the field of immunotherapy.  

What to Look For 

MCC tumors usually appear as firm, painless lesions or nodules on sun-exposed areas of the body, including the head, neck or eyelids. Some tumors are skin colored, while others are reddish, bluish-red or purple. While these tumors are not as distinctive as other skin cancers, they grow rapidly. The average size at detection is about 1.7 cm, the diameter of a dime.

View photos of MCC

Know the MCC Risk Factors 

Jimmy Buffett had at least two of the main risk factors for MCC: Men are more likely to develop the disease, and people older than age 50 also have a higher risk.  

Exposure to UV radiation is another strong risk factor. There is a clear, dangerous correlation between UV exposure and Merkel cell cancer.  

Being immunocompromised also greatly increases MCC risk; people with weakened immune systems are 15 times more likely to develop the disease than people with healthy immune systems. Other risk factors include having a light skin type, and having a history of skin cancer including melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. 

The Merkel cell polyomavirus can be found in most, but not all, MCC tumors. Scientists are not certain why the virus causes MCC in some people and not others.  

How to Reduce Your MCC Risk 

Exposure to UV rays creates a double threat for MCC, by increasing your skin cancer risk and suppressing your immune system. Safeguarding your skin from the sun is the single most effective way to reduce that risk.

More Than a Musical Legacy

Jimmy Buffett’s untimely death shed light on the dangers of MCC, while educating people that early detection of the disease can make the difference between life and death.   

By knowing what to look for and taking sun protection seriously, people can prevent MCC or detect it before it’s too late.   

At The Skin Cancer Foundation, we will always remember Jimmy Buffett not only for his music, but also for bringing Merkel cell carcinoma into the spotlight.  

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