Biopsy of lesion

The diagnosis of Merkel Cell Carcinoma is made with a skin biopsy, which is examined under the microscope. Common types of biopsy include a punch (a small core is taken) or a shave (part of the top of the lesion is removed with a scalpel). The pathologist will then use special studies (called immunohistochemistry stains) to determine if a lesion is an MCC or another form of cancer, such as small cell lung cancer (SCLC), lymphoma, or melanoma. Each of these cancers has unique characteristics when examined with such special stains.

Staging MCC/Disease Stage

MCC is divided into stages depending on the size of the primary tumour and extent of disease in the lymph nodes and elsewhere in the body (metastasis). The stage at diagnosis provides information to the doctor about the chance for later spread (metastasis) and treatment options.

For more information about staging cancers, please see the following link:

Merkel Cell Carcinoma can travel from the skin, through the lymphatic vessels, to the sentinel lymph node. The sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node that connects with the part of the body where the cancer arose. If a lymph node feels enlarged, it may contain MCC (macrometastases). Sometimes, lymph nodes may contain MCC, but feel normal and not feel enlarged (micrometastases).

Sentinel lymph node biopsy

There is a technique to identify the sentinel lymph node when it cannot be felt on physical exam. A blue dye and or a radioactive tracer are injected at the site of the primary lesion. Within 5 to 10 minutes, the dye and tracer travel along the same path that cancer cells would spread through the lymphatic vessels and collect in the sentinel lymph node. An instrument that detects the tracer is used to map the path from the skin to the sentinel lymph node. The sentinel lymph node is removed and examined for the presence of MCC under a microscope. If MCC is not found in the sentinel lymph node, then the chance that it has spread elsewhere in the body is lower than if MCC was found.

This technique has a low risk of significant side effects, provides useful information on the chance of spread, and identifies the lymph node region containing the sentinel lymph node (draining lymph node basin), which is sometimes difficult, especially for lesions on the head and neck.