Merkel Cell Carcinoma: What To Know About The Skin Cancer That Killed Jimmy Buffett

by | Sep 4, 2023 | Merkel Cell Carcinoma, Merkel Cell Skin Cancer

Vacation extraordinaire and topical rock star Jimmy Buffett died Friday night from an aggressive form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare disease that impacts only one in 130,000 Americans each year and is often caused by exposure to the sun.


Buffett, 76, had been fighting Merkel cell cancer for four years before he died at his home in Long Island, his website says.

Roughly 2,000 cases of the rare cancer are diagnosed in the United States per year, compared to over 97,000 cases of melanoma, according to the American Cancer Society.

Merkel cells are found in the topmost layer of the skin near nerve endings, and cancer forms when those cells grow out of control, often forming lumps in the areas most exposed to the sun, the National Cancer Institute says.

The cancer spreads painlessly in the early stages and quickly, usually to lymph nodes first and then to other parts of the body, including the brain, lungs and bones.

Merkel cell carcinoma is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body than the most common types of skin cancers—basal cell and squamous cell—and grows much quicker.

Exposure to natural or artificial sunlight, including from tanning beds, are the top risk factors for Merkel cell carcinoma, in addition to a weakened immune system, history of cancer or “being older than 50 years, male or white,” the National Cancer Institute says.

Merkel cell carcinoma is treatable with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy, but the cancer has a recurrence rate of 40% within five years, one study said—about 60% of people who have had one skin cancer will be diagnosed with another within 10 years.


65%. That’s the average 5-year relative survival rate for Merkel cell carcinoma, according to the American Cancer Society, on par with an overall cancer survival rate of 68%.


Buffett broke through on the charts with his 1977 single “Margaritaville” from the platinum Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes album. His loyal following of so-called Parrotheads revered him for his unguarded and unpretentious public persona, relaxation-ready music and never-ending love of a good time. Buffett had 13 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 in his career—eight in the 1970s—and performed almost 2,000 concerts in his career, each one including a selection of never-changing songs he’d dubbed “The Big 8.” His most recent hit came in 2011 with “Knee Deep,” a collaboration with Zac Brown Band that stayed on the Billboard charts for 20 weeks. His Margaritaville Holdings company sold concert tickets and merchandise before it was expanded to include a chain of restaurants, resorts, home decor, pool floats, sporting equipment, tequila and margarita mixes. His illness forced him to reschedule concerts earlier this summer, but Buffett did continue to perform during treatment, including his last show in July—a surprise appearance in Rhode Island.


The Library of Congress inducted Margaritaville into the National Recording Registry in April.


“You’re lucky enough at some point to put your thumb on the pulse of something that people can connect with,” Buffett said of his entry to the Library of Congress. “It’s an amazing and lucky thing to happen to you, and that happened with ‘Margaritaville.”


When Buffett’s anticipated new album will be released. He was due to release Equal Strain on All Parts later this year.


Buffett’s family has asked donations be made to his foundation, as well as Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Dana Farber Cancer Institute or MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas.

Author: Mary Whitfill Roeloffs/Forbes Staff I am a Boston-based reporter covering breaking news.