Merkel Cell: The Illness and Celebrities With the Skin Cancer

Jimmy Buffet recently passed after battling Merkel Cell skin cancer. What exactly is Merkel Cell, and are there other celebrities with the skin cancer?

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US, affecting at least one in five Americans by age 70. Sadly, dozens of Americans die from this condition every day.

A certain type of cancer has been in the news a lot lately: Merkel cell cancer. Merkel cell carcinoma is the type of skin cancer Jimmy Buffet passed away from after it spread to his lymph nodes.

Many celebrities with skin cancer have since spoken up about their conditions. Others have long been vocal about their battles over the years. Today, we highlight some of their stories with this post.

What Is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is a medical condition where skin cells grow abnormally. Abnormal skin cell growth can occur for many reasons. But the primary one is mutations to skin cell DNA.

These mutations happen due to a complex interplay between genes and lifestyle factors. However, the majority of skin cancers come about because of overexposure to UV light from the sun or tanning beds.

Not all skin cancers arise due to UV light. There are some cases where people get skin cancer in areas not exposed to light. In these cases, autoimmune conditions and exposure to environmental toxins may be to blame.

Skin Cancer Risk Factors

Some people are more prone to getting skin cancer than others. For example, having one or more of the following risk factors may increase the chances that you get skin cancer:

  • Less melanin
  • A history of sunburns
  • Living in a sunny climate
  • Moles
  • Actinic keratosis
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • A personal history of skin cancer
  • Weak immunity
  • Radiation exposure
  • Exposure to environmental toxins like arsenic

Many of these risk factors are preventable. Having less melanin, moles, or a family history of skin cancer, less so. These factors often have an underlying genetic component.

Skin Cancer Symptoms

There are different types of skin cancer, each with its own unique symptoms. The one thing they all share in common is suspicious changes to your skin. For example, any skin lesion that changes in size or shape is suspicious.

Lesions that are extremely painful, bleed, leak pus, or won't heal are also reason for concern. Additionally, look out for joint pain, swelling, or fever, as they might indicate a health problem.

If you experience any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. You can also look out for signs of specific skin cancer types, which we will discuss next.

Types of Skin Cancer

Experts distinguish between three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. There are also less common types of skin cancer (more on these in a moment).

Each type comes with its own unique symptoms. Learn more about the signs to watch for below.

Bassal Cell Carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common form of skin cancer. It is also the most common type of cancer, affecting 3.6 million new patients each year. The good news is that BCCs are not often deadly.

This type of cancer grows slowly, so catching it early is possible. To do that, look out for the following signs:

  • Open sores that heal slowly or not at all
  • A red or irritated patch that may crust or itch
  • A shiny pink, red, or white bump on fair skin
  • A tan, black, or brown bump on deeper skin
  • A small pink growth with raised, rolling edges
  • A flat, scar-like patch that looks shiny and taut

Importantly, BCCs can be tricky to detect, especially on darker skin. Visiting a dermatologist can help.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common type of skin cancer. It can form due to overexposure to UV light. It is also known to impact organ linings and body cavities, which are not typically exposed to the sun.

More than 1 million people get diagnosed with SCC each year in the US, particularly those over the age of 50. However, rates are rising in the under-50 population, so it's important to look out for these signs:

  • A rough bump that crusts or bleeds
  • A growth with a central depression
  • A wound that won't heal
  • A sore that heals and comes back
  • A 1-inch wide area with a flat, scaly texture

Actinic keratosis, cheilitis, and leukoplakia are also potential signs of SCC.


Melanoma is the third most common type of skin cancer. But it's probably the one you are most familiar with. That is because melanoma is incredibly aggressive and can be highly deadly.

Doctors use the ABCDEs of melanoma to identify suspicious moles. This acronym stands for:

  • Asymmetry: Melanomas have non-uniform shapes
  • Border: Melanomas have ill-defined or irregularly shaped borders
  • Color: Melanomas feature multiple colors or shades
  • Diameter: Melanomas are larger than six millimeters in diameter
  • Evolution: Melanomas change size, shape, or color over time

People with one or more risk factors for melanoma should see a doctor for annual skin exams. Anyone else who experiences the above symptoms should also schedule an appointment ASAP.

What Is Merkel Cell Cancer?

Merkel cell carcinoma is one of the most uncommon skin cancer types, along with Kaposi sarcoma and sebaceous gland carcinoma.

Kaposi sarcomas primarily affect people with HIV/AIDS or other people with reduced immune function. Sebaceous gland carcinomas are extremely rare, most commonly forming on the eyelid.

Of the three, Merkel cell carcinoma is the most prevalent. It was recently in the news for being the original type of cancer Jimmy Buffet suffered from before his untimely death. Learn more about Merkel cell cancer here.

Merkel Cell Cancer Risk Factors

Experts are not exactly sure what causes Merkel cell carcinoma. However, we do know that certain risk factors can increase someone's risk of developing it. These factors include:

  • Long-term or excessive exposure to UV light
  • A weak immune system
  • A history of other types of skin cancer
  • Fair skin color
  • Being over the age of 50

People with these risk factors should look out for the signs and symptoms of this rare skin cancer.

Merkel Cell Cancer Symptoms

Merkel cell carcinomas begin as a fast-growing tumor on the skin. It is generally painless and may be skin-colored, though it can also be purple, blue, or red. Most Merkel cell carcinomas show up on the face, neck, or scalp.

Long-term exposure to the sun is the primary cause of Merkel cell cancer. However, the fact that it can also affect areas of the body not exposed to the sun shows that UV exposure is not the full story.

Merkel Cell Cancer Complications

Merkel cell carcinoma is extremely aggressive. Catching the carcinoma early can stop the cancer in its tracks. But this skin cancer can still metastasize (i.e., spread) to other areas of the body after someone receives treatment. 

The first stage is when the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes. As the cancer progresses, it can spread to the brain or bones. If it spreads to the lungs or liver, the cancer can impact their functioning, which may be fatal.

What Kind of Rare Skin Cancer Did Jimmy Buffett Have?

Jimmy Buffet had a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma, also known as Merkel cell cancer. It is so rare that only around 3,000 people receive a diagnosis each year. That's around .0009% of the US population.

According to Buffet's website, the singer, author, and entrepreneur received a diagnosis of Merkel cell cancer in 2019. Despite receiving treatment, the cancer spread to his lymph nodes.

The lymph nodes are a component of the immune system. They connect to a network of vessels that carry lymph fluid, a clear, watery substance that is rich in infection-fighting white blood cells.

There are two types of cancer that affect the lymph nodes. The first is lymphoma. Lymphoma begins with a mutation in B lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.

The second type of lymph node cancer is one that starts elsewhere in the body, such as the skin, before spreading. This is the type of lymph node cancer Jimmy Buffet developed.

How Does Skin Cancer Spread?

Skin cancer spreads through a process called metastasis. The process begins when a few cancerous cells break away from a tumor. In the case of Merkel cell cancer, the cells break away from the carcinoma on the skin.

If these cells get into the bloodstream, they may travel to other places in the body. But the bloodstream is not the only way cancerous cells get around. They can also travel through the lymph system.

How do these cells get into the blood or lymph in the first place? They must first undergo changes that allow them to break away from the tumor and attach to a blood or lymph vessel.

Blood and lymph vessels are populous around tumors. The body creates new ones to send immune cells and healing factors to destroy the cancer cells. Unfortunately, this also makes them easy targets for cells that break away from the original cancer.

In most cases, these cancerous cells die or are destroyed by the immune system before they get to their destination. But sometimes, they survive the trip and arrive at a new place in the body, growing and forming new tumors.

Other Celebrities With Skin Cancer

Jimmy Buffet is not the only celebrity who has battled skin cancer, whether successfully or not. Learn about other actors, musicians, and reality stars who have received a skin cancer diagnosis.

William H. Macy

William H. Macy is an Emmy-winning actor known for his roles in the TV show Shameless and the 1996 film Fargo. He has battled basal cell carcinoma since at least 2012, when he first announced his treatment for a lesion on his nose.

Hugh Jackman

High Jackman is an actor known for his decades-spanning role as Wolverine in the X-Men film franchise. He has been vocal about his basal cell carcinoma diagnosis. As you may recall, BCC is the most common form of skin cancer.

The first time we became aware of his diagnosis was in 2013. The actor had a carcinoma removed from his nose and sported a bandaid for a few months. In 2023, he announced that his latest biopsy came up negative.

Diane Keaton

Diane Keaton is an Oscar-winning actress known for films like The First Wives Club (1996) and The Godfather Parts I and II. Keaton has talked about her first diagnosis of basal cell carcinoma at the young age of 21.

Since then, Keaton has also dealt with squamous cell carcinoma. SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer. She has undergone treatment for it at least twice.

Andy Cohen

Andy Cohen is the beloved host of The Real Housewives reality TV series on Bravo. In 2016, he announced he had recently undergone treatment for melanoma skin cancer on his lip.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda is an Academy Award-winning actress known for Klute (1971), Coming Home (1978), and Book Club (2018). Fonda has been gracing screens since the 1960s and has had nearly as many battles with cancer.

In 2018, the actress reported having a cancerous growth removed from her lip. She had a breast cancer mastectomy in 2016. In 2022, Fonda also announced that she had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma.

Khloe Kardashian

Khloe Kardashian - the youngest of the three Kardashian sisters - made waves on season 3 of the family's reality show when she announced her melanoma diagnosis. Melanoma is a less common form of skin cancer, even more so for someone of Kardashian's age.

The reality TV star had melanoma on her cheek. She had the lesion removed in October of 2022, leaving a large indentation on her cheek.

Caitlyn Jenner

Khloe Kardashian and Kaitlyn Jenner may not share genes, but it seems skin cancer runs in the family. Jenner was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma on her nose in 2018 and again in 2020.

Melanie Griffith

Melanie Griffith is an actress known for her many roles in classic '80s and '90s films like Working Girl (1988). In 2018, she announced she was undergoing treatment for basal cell carcinoma on her nose.

Recently, Griffith stepped out in Hollywood with a large scar on her left cheek. Though she has not discussed the scar personally, many have speculated it could be leftover from a second skin cancer biopsy.

Bob Marley

There is a common misconception that people with deeper skin tones can't get cancer. Beloved reggae singer Bob Marley proves otherwise. The award-winning artist passed away in 1981 from melanoma.

Marley first noticed the lesion under his big toenail in the late 1970s. Misdiagnosed as a soccer injury, the lesion was actually a rare but aggressive form of skin cancer known as acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM).

Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor is an actor known for his roles in the Star Wars film franchise, as well as Trainspotting (1996) and Doctor Sleep (2019). In 2008, he had a suspicious lesion removed from his forehead and a cancerous mole removed from his eye.

Donal Logue

Donal Logue is a Canadian actor known for his many roles in TV shows like Grounded for Life and Gotham, as well as films like Just Like Heaven (2005). He was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in 2014.

The actor had the cancerous lesions removed through two rounds of surgery. He has since been cancer-free.

Sam Champion

Sam Champion is better known as Good Morning America's weatherman. He graced our screens for nearly 25 years before retiring in 2013. His first experience with skin cancer was when he was only 20 years old.

To bring awareness to the dangers of skin cancer, Champion had a lesion removed live on Good Morning America in 2010. He has since reported additional surgeries to remove basal cell carcinoma and other suspicious lesions.

Anderson Cooper

Anderson Cooper is an award-winning broadcast journalist and CNN news anchor. In 2008, Cooper announced on air that he had recently undergone a procedure to remove a cancerous lesion from his face.

Teddi Mellencamp Arroyave

Teddie Mellencamp Arroyave is a reality star known for her stint on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. In 2023, Arroyave announced that she had been battling skin cancer for years and was recently diagnosed with melanoma.

She has stated that she has had 12 or 13 suspicious lesions removed. Doctors caught many of them in their early stages. But in October 2022, she battled a stage II melanoma.

Terry Bradshaw

Terry Bradshaw is the Hall of Fame former quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers and current co-host on Fox NFL Sunday. He has been diagnosed with and treated for skin cancer and bladder cancer.

Like Jimmy Buffet, Bradshaw received a diagnosis of Merkel cell carcinoma. He is a success story, announcing in 2022 that he received treatment and is currently cancer-free.

Witney Carson

Witney Carson of 'Dancing with the Stars' fame was diagnosed with melanoma at the very young age of 22. The cancerous lesion showed up on her foot in 2016. She has since reported that her father also suffered from melanoma.

How to Prevent Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is scary, but it is also highly preventable. Practicing good sun care habits can greatly reduce your risk. Here are the top recommendations from the American Academy of Dermatology Association for protecting your skin.

Limit Sun Exposure

Experts recommend limiting your sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., as well as other times when the UV index is high. People already at risk for skin cancer should be even more cautious during these times.

Additionally, know that UV rays can still affect your skin, even when it's cloudy outside. The presence of water, snow, or sand can also amplify the sun's rays, so be extra cautious with your skin in these conditions.

Wear Sunscreen and Reapply Frequently

Some people who work outside can't limit their exposure when the sun's rays are the strongest. In that case, use sunscreen and wear protective clothing when outdoors.

The best sunscreen to use offers broad-spectrum protection and is resistant to moisture and sweat. It should have an SPF rating of at least 30 or, ideally, 50.

Even water-resistant products will wear off over time. So, ensure you reapply your SPF every two hours if you plan to spend time in the sun. Reapply even more frequently if you are swimming or sweating.

Avoid Tanning Beds

The sun is not the only source of skin cancer risk. Tanning beds emit UV light, which can be just as damaging. Avoid using tanning beds to lower your skin cancer risk and, as a bonus, prevent premature skin aging.

Do you want the look of a tan without the sun damage? Consider using a self-tanning product. Always remember that these products do not protect you from the sun, though, so don't forget to still wear sunscreen.

Perform Regular Skin Self-Exams and See a Dermatologist

People who are at risk for skin cancer should frequently perform skin exams. Use a full-length mirror and a hand mirror to investigate your entire body for suspicious lesions.

If you find a spot you aren't sure about, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist. Depending on your risk, your provider may also recommend annual skin cancer screenings.

Wear UV Protectant Clothing

Experts have always recommended protecting your skin from the sun with clothing. That includes wearing long sleeves, long pants, and wide-brimmed hats to block the sun.

Clothing technology has advanced. Now, clothing can be made with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) for even more effective protection from the sun.

UPF clothing is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of skin cancer year-round. But to get the most out of your investment, you must buy UPF clothing from a reputable brand like BloqUV.

BloqUV's Proprietary BloqTek fabric filters out 98% of harmful UV rays. We know because every single one of our products undergoes rigorous testing before we assign a UPF level.

Protect Yourself With BloqUV

Jimmy Buffet was one of the many celebrities with skin cancer. He suffered from rare but aggressive Merkel cell carcinoma. If you are at risk for this or another type of skin cancer, preventative measures are key.

Limit your tanning bed and sun exposure when you can. Or wear sunscreen and UPF clothing when you can't. Performing regular skin self-exams can help you catch suspicious lesions early.

Want to start saving on your UPF clothing? BloqUV's rewards program allows you to earn points toward future purchases. Sign up today to receive 15% off your first order and start your journey to healthier, cancer-free skin!