TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Thousands of fans marched along Duval Street in Key West this past weekend in a precession honoring Jimmy Buffett – the legend.
The internationally acclaimed singer and songwriter died on Sept. 1 at 76 years old, and it’s only now that we’re learning more about what caused his tragic death, a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma that he’d been battling for four years.
On Monday, WFLA News Channel 8 Anchor Stacie Schaible spoke with a cancer specialist from the Moffitt Cancer Center, who shed some light on the disease.
Buffett was known for his laid-back Florida lifestyle and his love for sand and sun.
“He kind of fits perfectly the demographic of somebody diagnosed with this cancer. Someone that’s had a lot of sun exposure in their life and is living in lower latitudes like Florida,” Doctor Andrew Brohl said.
Brohl is a rare cancer specialist with Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. He explained that Merkel cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer most people have probably never heard of until now.
“In many cases, caused, actually by a virus that gets incorporated into the tumor, and the other third of cases or so are caused predominately by sun damage, like most other skin cancers. Although, even in the virus-related types, you know, sun exposure is a factor also,” Brohl explained.
When asked what the first warning signs are like in this type of skin cancer, Brohl said they can often be “nondescriptive” at first.
“This one often can be somewhat nondescriptive at first. It looks almost like a cyst that’s inflamed underneath the skin,” Brohl said. “It can be reddish or purplish. Often we see people try to cut it out like it’s an infection or take antibiotics for it and eventually it just keeps growing into more of like a mask, but it starts off almost like a pimple or a cyst that’s gone wrong underneath the skin.”
Merkel cell carcinoma only affects about 3,000 people in the United States each year. Dr. Brohl says it’s often deadly because it’s so aggressive and it has a high risk of spreading to other parts of the body from the skin – that males early detection and prevention even more important.
“I think like anything else, you know, moderation is the key. You know, a little sun is good, but a lot of sun can be damaging to your skin, especially later in life [it] can put people at risk for getting almost any type of skin cancer, including this rare type,” Brohl explained.
While it’s not clear what causes Merkel cell carcinoma, the Mayo Clinic said the cancer begins in the Merkel cells, which are found at the base of the outermost layer of your skin. Given that Merkel cell carcinoma is very rare, the clinic says it’s likely that other risk factors play a role in the development of this cancer.
According to the Mayo Clinic these tips can help prevent this rare cancer:
- Avoid the sun during peak hours, typically form 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Shield your skin and eyes.
- Apply sunscreen liberally and often.
- Watch for changes – If you notice a mole, freckle, or bump that’s changing in size, shape, or color, talk to your doctor.
Buffett was known by some as the “Pirate Laureate” of the Florida Keys, who perfected that laid-back beach bum sound. Although the legendary singer will be greatly missed, his lifestyle will live on in the hearts of many and continue spreading awareness about Merkel cell carcinoma.