Patient Stories

Merkel Cell Carcinoma Survivor

Milton Cohen

 Milton Cohen, Seattle, Washington
  • Diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma
  • Treated with surgery and radiation therapy
  • In his 80s, doing just fine

Several years ago, Milton Cohen had a small growth removed from the left side of his face. When it came back last summer, “vanity sent me back to my dermatologist to have it taken care of again,” Cohen says. 

While he was at his doctor’s office, he also showed her another growth that had appeared on his left forearm, just below his elbow. It had shown up only a few months before.

“It didn’t look like a normal mole. It wasn’t painful and didn’t itch,” Cohen recalls in his description of the growth. “It was very small and pinkish in color. I wouldn’t have gone to the doctor to check it out so soon necessarily, but since I was there anyway, I thought I’d ask her about it.”

His doctor was unsure about what the growth was, so she removed it and sent it to the lab for a biopsy.

“That was just before Labor Day weekend,” Cohen says, “during which time my doctor went away to a dermatology conference where she met Dr. Paul Nghiem from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), who apparently spent some time talking to her about something called Merkel cell carcinoma. What happened next was amazing to me.”

The following week, Cohen received word from his doctor that the results of his biopsy came back with something very rare that she’d never diagnosed before -– Merkel cell carcinoma. Needless to say, Cohen was then referred to Dr. Nghiem (pronounced Nee-um) at the SCCA for a detailed consultation with the team.

“First, I had surgery with Dr. David Byrd at UW Medical Center to remove the tissue surrounding the skin growth that had been removed on my arm, as well as the sentinel lymph node to see if the cancer had spread into my lymph system,” Cohen says. “While I waited to hear the results [of the lymph node biopsy], I wasn’t nervous actually. Fortunately for me though, the results were negative and the cancer had not spread.”

After surgery, Dr. Nghiem recommended radiation therapy to kill off any stray cancer cells that may have been present after surgery -- an event that is very common in Merkel cell carcinoma. Dr. Upendra Parvathaneni, a UW Medical Center/SCCA radiation oncologist who is a member of the Merkel team, oversaw this aspect of therapy that took several weeks.

“I can’t get over the fabulous treatment I got at SCCA and UW Medical Center,” Cohen says, “from the nurses to the doctors. I’m just blown away… And if I can go three to four years without a recurrence, I’m home-free.”

No matter what happens in your life, Cohen says, “You have to have a positive attitude and count your blessings. I started with nothing and have appreciated everything along the way.” Cohen started a company called Americana Portraits that evolved into Growing Family Portraits that expanded into 18 states and has 700 employees. Married for 54 years, they raised three children, traveled the world, and at the age of 82, Cohen says he has no complaints.