What We Can Learn From Jimmy Buffett’s Battle With Merkel Cell Carcinoma

September 20, 2023
Palm trees rise up toward a blue sky on a tropical beach

Some of Jimmy Buffett's most popular songs evoke the sunny mood of tropical beach life. (Photo by Roberto Nickson for Unsplash.)

He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many.


Jimmy Buffett fans across the world are mourning the loss of the iconic “Margaritaville” singer, who passed away September 1. He was 76. News media outlets reported that Buffett had been battling an extremely aggressive and advanced form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC). 

MCC is an uncommon but serious type of non-melanoma skin cancer. For most people, MCC looks like flesh-colored or bluish-red lumps. Skin changes normally show up on the face, head, or neck, but they can happen anywhere on the body.

Finding MCC can be difficult because it does not always look the same. It can often be mistaken for other skin issues. It is usually painless, so it can go undetected for a while.  


Am I at risk for MCC?  

There are many things that can increase the risk of MCC. In most cases, a virus affecting special skin cells — called Merkel cell polyomavirus — is linked to Merkel cell carcinoma. Other risk factors include spending a lot of time in the sun, having other skin cancers, older age, and having a lighter skin color. That being said, anyone of any complexion can get skin cancer.  


How Is Merkel Cell Carcinoma Diagnosed & Treated?   


Some of Buffett's most popular songs, like "Margaritaville” and "Cheeseburger in Paradise," celebrate sunny places. Here are some simple ways you can enjoy the sunshine and your time outdoors while staying protected:

  • Stay out of the sun when it is at its strongest and hottest (10 a.m.-4 p.m.) 
  • Use hats, sunglasses, and other protective clothing to block UV rays. 
  • Use a minimum of SPF 30 sunscreen, even if it’s cloudy. Make sure to reapply, especially when swimming or sweating.
  • Take note of skin changes; even small changes can be concerning.


Here's What to Look for When Doing Skin Checks 


But I thought skin cancer wasn’t that bad?

A common misconception is that skin cancers aren’t dangerous. MCC, among other types of skin cancer, can spread to other parts of the body (metastasize), including the lymph nodes. As cancer spreads, it becomes much more difficult to treat, making it life-threatening. The key to survivorship is early detection and treatment.   




Buffett, who battled MCC for 4 years, continued to perform after his diagnosis and throughout his treatment. The resilience of his experience sheds light on the importance of early detection and ignites hope for new advancements in treatment.  

MCC is rare, but it should be taken seriously. Knowing what causes it, how to spot it, and how to protect your skin can make a big difference. Watch for skin changes and do not hesitate to see a doctor if any concerns arise. If you or someone you know has been impacted by a cancer diagnosis, we are here to provide support at any stage


Watch this 13-minute guide to understand more about advanced non-melanoma skin cancer, including types, diagnosis, and treatment.