Merkel Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck: Recommendations for Diagnostics and Treatment

Ann Surg Oncol. 2017 Oct;24(11):3430-3437. doi: 10.1245/s10434-017-5993-1. Epub 2017 Jul 31.


Background: Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a rare, aggressive tumor that often occurs in the head and neck region. Because of these features, the classifications and diagnostic and treatment regimens are frequently modified. Especially in the anatomically complex head and neck region, it is crucial to be aware of the current recommendations for diagnostics and treatment of MCC to ensure appropriate treatment. This overview aims to summarize the currently available literature.

Methods: The authors reviewed the relevant literature and international guidelines for MCC from 2012 to 2017 with respect to epidemiology and prognosis, diagnostic procedures and imaging, surgery, radiation, systemic treatment, and aftercare. These results were compared with existing guidelines, some of them current, and recommendations were derived.

Results: Marked developments in imaging have resulted in an increased use of functional imaging. The surgical concepts have changed regarding safety margins and the use of sentinel node biopsies. In systemic treatment, a move from conventional agents toward immuno-oncology can be observed.

Conclusions: For staging, it is important to be as exact as possible using functional imaging (e.g., positron emission tomography/computed tomography scan), especially in the head and neck area with its complex lymph drainage. This often plays an especially important role in early stages of the tumor, when the resection margin can be reduced to preserve the organ. Aftercare also should include functional imaging. In an advanced, metastatic stage, immuno-oncology (PD-1, PD-L1, CTLA-4) is superior to the previous methods of systemic treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / diagnosis*
  • Carcinoma, Merkel Cell / therapy*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic / standards*