Cancer that killed Jimmy Buffett is rare and aggressive, doctor says

BOCA RATON, Fla. – As tributes pour in for late legendary singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, a South Florida dermatologist is shedding light on the rare, aggressive skin cancer that took the life of the “Margaritaville” singer.

Buffett, 76, lost a four-year battle with Merkel cell carcinoma on Friday.

“Typically, we think about the common three: basal cell, the most common, followed by squamous cell, followed by the one we fear typically the most, malignant melanoma,” Boca Raton dermatologist Dr. Jeffrey Fromowitz said.

The fourth, Merkel cell carcinoma, is a lot less common.

“When we look at the data, it’s as few as 2,500 to 3,500 cases a year in the U.S.,” Fromowitz said. “This is a very uncommon skin cancer.”

Fromowitz says when Merkel cell carcinoma occurs, it tends to reoccur, even when surgically removed, and metastasizes in about half of those affected, making it an aggressive battle.

“80% of cases are linked to an infection with a virus, it’s called the Merkel cell polyomavirus, so we think there’s this viral exposure at some point in life and many years to decades later...this cancer can develop and form,” he said.

Fromowitz said about 20% of cases are linked to ultraviolet light exposure.

“If it’s caught early, surgically removed with clear margins, you have a more than 70% five-year survival rate,” he said. “People can still do relatively well with it.”

Fromowitz said for a favorable outcomes, early diagnosis and treatment is key.

“It’s critical to have an annual, full-body skin exam,” he said. “This is how you find it, because they’re very innocuous. Often, they present as small red bumps on the skin.”

The best way to prevent Merkel cell carcinoma, like other skin cancers, is to apply sunscreen daily, Fromowitz said.

About the Author:

Samiar Nefzi joined the Local 10 News team in August of 2023.