Jimmy Buffett’s Merkel Cell Skin Cancer

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Jimmy Buffett was a famous singer and ukelele and guitar player who combined country, rock, folk, calypso and pop music. His top hits that he wrote and sang were “Margaritaville” and “Come Monday,” and he had nine platinum albums and eight gold albums.He was also a businessman who was worth more than $1 billion from an incredible number of investments, including restaurant chains named after two of his best-known songs, the Margaritaville Cafe and Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurants.

On September 1, 2023, he died at the age of 76 after a four-year battle with a very rare type of skin cancer called Merkel cell skin cancer, a form of skin cancer that is considered three to five times more deadly than melanoma.

Early Life and Career
James William Buffett was born in 1946 in Mississippi, to a father who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. Jimmy started to play the guitar at Auburn University, but his grades were so bad that he had to leave college.  At age 23 in 1969, he received a degree in history from the University of Southern Mississippi. He then performed on stage in Nashville, Tennessee and recorded his first album, the country-tinged folk rock record “Down to Earth”, in 1970.

In 1973, when he was age 27, his friend and mentor Jim Croce died and ABC/Dunhill Records asked Buffett to replace Croce. For the next decade, he recorded lots of top records, but supported himself primarily with extensive touring. In 1985, he started making even more money as a shrewd businessman when he opened a “Margaritaville” retail store in Key West. In 1987, he opened the first Margaritaville Cafe. In 1994 at age 48, he appeared with Frank Sinatra on a cover of “Mack the Knife.” He also wrote three books. “Tales from Margaritaville”, “Where Is Joe Merchant?” and his memoir “A Pirate Looks at Fifty,” and two children’s books. In 2005, at age 59, he introduced Radio Margaritaville on Sirius Satellite Radio.

Notorious Events from His Memoirs
• In January 1996, Jamaican police shot at Buffett’s Grumman HU-16 airplane because they thought that it was smuggling marijuana. The Jamaican government apologized and reported that the shooting was a mistake.
• In October, 2006, news reports claimed that Buffett was accused by French customs officials in Saint Tropez for allegedly carrying over 100 pills of ecstasy. He said that they were personal medicines, but he was fined $300 anyway.
• He was an owner of company that sold cannabidiol (CBD) products. CBD can damage the liver (Molecules, 2019, 24(9), 1694;) to increase risk for a fatty liver (J of Internal Medicine, March 13, 2023). Some advertisers claim that CBD may help to treat diabetes but there is no scientific support for these claims (Diabetes Spectr, Dec 23, 2021;34(2):198–201).
• He told the New York Times (February 8, 2018) that he’s been following a strict diet recently: “No sugar and no carbs. Except on Sunday.” He also stopped smoking weed and instead opts for vape oils sometimes after working.

Cause of Death at Age 76
In 2019, he was diagnosed with Merkel Cell skin carcinoma. On May, 19, 2023, he cancelled upcoming concerts and was hospitalized for “medical issues requiring ‘immediate attention.” In late August 2023, he began receiving hospice care, and he died on September 1, 2023.

Merkel cell skin carcinoma is a very rare type of skin cancer. About 3,000 people in the United State are diagnosed with this cancer every year, equal to about one case for every 130,000 people.

More common skin cancers are called basal cell or squamous cell and are usually curable just by cutting out the cancer completely so that there is 360 degrees of normal skin around the removed cancer. Another type of skin cancer, called melanoma, is much more dangerous.  They are often associated with moles and can spread rapidly though the body.

What is Skin Cancer?
Most skin cancers are caused by repeated damage to the DNA in skin cells from excessive and repeated exposure to sunlight. Melanomas are different; they can be caused by a single sunburn at any age and are far more likely to spread through your body.

Every cell in your body is programmed to live for a limited time and then die. This is called apoptosis. For example, red blood cells live for only around 120 days and then die. A new skin cell starts on the inner bottom layer of your skin and then progressively moves to the outside, where it is sloughed off as dander or dandruff at about 28 days. If you expose your skin too long to ultraviolet light, the skin is damaged (sunburn) and turns red, hot, itchy and burning. It is not just exposure to sunlight that damages skin, it is excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays that damages the DNA so that skin cells forget to die and try to live forever. This is
called cancer, which can spread to and damage other parts of your body.

Merkel Cell Skin Cancer
Merkel cell skin cancer is a cancer of nerve cells in the skin that govern touch.  It is a  rapidly growing skin cancer that is diagnosed by the types of cells seen under a microscope.  Risk factors  include excessive sun exposure, immune suppression and older age. It usually starts as painless lump in the skin.

The treatment for Merkel cell skin cancer is to kill these cells with radiation, UV light, topical chemicals, surgery and immune stimulants.  There is a 70 percent five-year survival rate after diagnosis. Prevention is to avoid excessive sunlight. Some of these cancers respond to treatment, while others do not.

Jimmy Buffett died of Merkel cell skin cancer even though he had received the best medical treatment available today.

Jimmy Buffett
December 25, 1946 – September 1, 2023