A rare, deadly form of skin cancer is on the rise in the US, and dermatologists are warning people to take extra care of their skin as we head into the summer months.
Merkel Cell Carcinoma is found mostly among older patients, but the American Cancer Society says that there are around 1500 cases reported each year.
"It's devastating because it's usually not picked up until later stages," says Dr. Melanie Palm. She works at Art of Skin in Solana Beach and has treated one case of MCC. "It's more lethal than melanoma. It often has lymph node involvement. It very quickly metastasizes."
Research from the ACS says the disease is often associated with a virus. But it seems to affect older people because they have more, prolonged exposure to the sun.
Doctors are calling attention to MCC and other forms of skin cancer all throughout May during Skin Cancer Awareness Month. They say it's much easier to prevent Merkel Cell and other cancers than it is to treat them.
"We live in San Diego. I don't want people to hide from the sun," says Dr. Palm. "But I think being responsible about it is reasonable."
That includes wearing sunscreen, protective clothing and regular visits to a dermatologist.
"It's something I tell all my friends," says Jen Massara, a skin cancer survivor. "Best case scenario is you're fine, you check that box, you're good to go. Worst case scenario, they find something, and you get it taken care of."
Self-inspections are also helpful. Dr. Palm tells her patients to keep the "ABCDE's" in mind when looking at moles.
"A is asymmetery, if it has an odd shape," she says. "B is Border, is the border irregular on the spot. C is color. Is it dark, pink or have several colors. D is diameter. We don't like anything bigger than a pencil head. And E is evolution, has it grown or changed over time."
As for sunscreen, Dr. Palm says you want to make sure zinc oxide or titanium dioxide have the highest percentage of all the active ingredients. She says those minerals offer the best protection against the sun's rays.