Learn About Mycosis Fungoids, a Rare Form of Skin Cancer

Blood of patient with mycosis fungoides cancer is treated by UV light and drugs. Credit: Joseph Nettis / Getty Images

Mycosis fungoides (MF) is the most common of the cutaneous T-cell lymphomas, a group of rare cancers that grow in the skin. Sezary syndrome, a more rare form, occurs in about 5% of all cases of mycosis fungoides. In the United States, approximately 1000 new cases of mycosis fungoides occur per year.

MF affects men twice as often as women, and is more common in black people than in white people.

Mycosis fungoides can begin at any age, but the most common age is 50 years old. The cause of the disease is unknown.

Symptoms of Mycosis Fungoides

Mycosis fungoides progresses in stages, which are defined by skin symptoms, including:

  • Patch phase - The skin develops flat, red patches; in dark-skinned individuals these may appear as either very light or very dark patches. These skin patches are very itchy. Some areas may be raised and hard, and are known as plaques. The patches and plaques often appear on the buttocks, groin, hips, under the arms, and on the breasts/chest.
  • Skin tumors phase - Red-violet raised lumps (nodules) appear and may be dome-shaped (like a mushroom) or be ulcerated.
  • Skin redness (erythroderma) stage - In addition to the patches and tumors, the individual's skin may develop large red areas that are very itchy and scaly. Skin folds in the face may thicken, and skin of the palms and soles may thicken and crack.
  • Lymph node stage - In this stage, mycosis fungoides begins to move to other parts of the body. The first areas affected are the lymph nodes, which can become inflamed, and often become cancerous. MF cancer may also spread to the liver, lungs, or bone marrow.

Diagnosis of the Condition

This condition is also known as Alibert-Bazin syndrome or granuloma fungoides.

 Typically, there is about a 6-year span from the time symptoms begin until the diagnosis of mycosis fungoides. With this disease, confusion with other conditions is common as the early phases of the disease often resemble eczema or psoriasis.

In order to properly diagnose mycosis fungoides, a sample of the skin can be taken (skin biopsy) and examined for the disease. Laboratory tests can be done to determine the progression of the cancer. 

To understand the different stages of the disease, various tests are done to assess lymph nodes, the blood and the internal organs. Most patients show symptoms that are only confined to the skin, such as patches (flat spots) and plaques (slightly raised or 'wrinkled' spots).

Treatment for MF

If mycosis fungoides is in the early stage, treatments such as steroid creams, light therapy, chemotherapy applied to the skin, or electron beam radiation may be used. The goal is to put MF cancer in remission, which can often last a long time.

If an individual's disease does not respond to the skin treatments, or the disease has progressed to the tumor stage, systemic treatments such as recombinant alfa interferon or chemotherapy may be used. Unfortunately, there is no cure for mycosis fungoides, so the amount of time a person survives with the disease depends on how far it has spread by the time it is diagnosed and treatment begins.

Pinter-Brown, L.C. (2002). Mycosis fungoides. eMedicine.