This was in the Sydney Morning Herald today:
Rare skin cancer touted as most lethal
Belinda Tasker, AAP National Medical Correspondent
July 8, 2011 – 1:04PM
Move over melanoma, a little known form of skin cancer has taken the dubious title of being the most deadly form of the disease.
Scientists in Western Australia discovered that survival rates for people with merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) were far worse than those for melanoma, which has been widely regarded as the most lethal skin cancer.
They also found that WA had the highest rates of MCC in the world, with 215 cases diagnosed between 1993 and 2007.
Of those cases, just 64 per cent of patients were still alive after five years compared to 90 per cent of those with melanoma.
Lead researcher Professor Lin Fritschi, of the WA Institute for Medical Research, said while MCC was an aggressive form of skin cancer it was still relatively uncommon.
“We don’t want everyone worried because we had 215 cases in 13 years,” she told AAP.
“There’s 1000 melanomas a year in WA so it’s nowhere near as common as melanoma.
“But it’s not well diagnosed and it’s quite aggressive and it has a high mortality compared to other skin cancers.”
MCCs take the form of pink lumps on the skin – compared to melanomas which are blackish in colour – and are most often found on the face, neck, arm and lower leg.
Like melanomas, MCCs are believed to be caused by sun exposure.
Those most likely to develop MCCs are older men, people with a history of skin cancer and those with suppressed immune systems due to liver and kidney transplants.
Prof Fritschi said that MCCs were often mistaken for the less aggressive and most common form of skin cancer, basel cell carcinomas (BCCs).
However, even when they were correctly diagnosed, removed and the patient treated with radiotherapy, the tumours were still prone to reappear.
“I don’t think doctors would see them often compared to BCCs and SCCs (squamous cell carcinoma, which are non-melanoma skin cancers),” Prof Fritschi said.
“Most red lumps on your skin are not going to be MCC but it’s something for doctors to keep aware of.”
The study by Prof Fritschi and her research colleagues has been accepted for publication in the British Journal of Dermatology.
They based their findings on a review of the WA Cancer Registry and now plan to expand their study to look at MCC rates across Australia.
The team said MCCs were not widely studied despite Australia having the highest rates of sun-related cancers in the world.
“Given the potential link between sun exposure and MCC incidence, it might be predicted that MCC rates in Australia would be high,” they wrote.
The researchers said there was some evidence that MCC rates leapt in the 1980s before stabilising in the late 1990s.
But they were not sure if the reported increases were real or the result of improved diagnosis.
They also added that while there was some suggestion of a link between MCCs and a newly-discovered viral infection, sun exposure was probably a greater risk factor in Australia.