Squamous Cell Cancer
Squamous cell cancer is a type of skin cancer. Learn about the symptoms, causes, risk factors, treatment, and prevention of it.
Top of page
Is Squamous Cell Cancer?
Squamous cell cancer (SCC), also known as squamous cell
carcinoma, is a type of skin cancer that begins in the squamous cells. Squamous
cells are the thin, flat cells that make up the epidermis, or the outermost
layer of the skin. SCC is caused by changes in the DNA of these cells, which
cause them to multiply uncontrollably.
According to the Skin
Cancer Foundation, SCC is the second most common form of skin cancer. Approximately
700,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with this type of skin cancer
People with SCC often develop scaly, red patches, open sores, or
warts on their skin. These abnormal growths can develop anywhere, but they’re
most often found in areas that receive the most exposure to ultraviolet (UV)
radiation, either from sunlight or from tanning beds or lamps. The condition
usually isn’t life-threatening, but it can become dangerous if it goes
untreated. When treatment isn’t received promptly, the growths can increase in
size and spread to other parts of your body, causing serious complications.
Are the Different Types of Skin Cancer?
Your skin has multiple layers. The outer, protective layer of the
skin is known as the epidermis. The epidermis is made up of squamous cells,
basal cells, and melanocytes. These cells are constantly shedding to make way
for fresh, new skin cells. However, when certain genetic changes occur in the
DNA of any of these cells, skin cancer can occur. The main types of skin cancer
are squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma.
Squamous Cell Cancer
Squamous cells are the cells closest to the skin’s surface, and
their purpose is to line the skin. SCC often develops on areas of the body that
are frequently exposed to UV radiation, such as the face, hands, and ears. In
some cases, it can occur in other areas of the body.
Basal Cell Cancer
Basal cells sit below the squamous cells, and they’re constantly dividing
to form new cells. According to the American
Cancer Society, basal cell cancer is the most common type of cancer. Like
SCC, basal cell cancer develops on areas exposed to UV rays, particularly the
face and neck. This type of cancer tends to grow slowly, and it rarely spreads
to other parts of the body. However, if basal cell cancer goes untreated, it
can eventually spread to the bones and other tissues.
Melanocytes are located in the deepest section of the epidermis.
These cells are responsible for producing melanin, the pigment that gives skin
its color. When cancer develops in the melanocytes, the condition is known as malignant
melanoma. Malignant melanoma is less common than squamous cell and basal cancers,
but it’s more likely to grow and spread when it’s left untreated.
Are the Symptoms of Squamous Cell Cancer?
SCC often occurs in areas exposed to UV radiation, such as the
face, ear, and hands. However, it can also appear in the mouth, in the anal
area, and on the genitals.
In its early stages, SCC often presents itself as a scaly,
reddish patch of skin. As it progresses, it can turn into a raised bump that
continues to grow. The growth may also crust or bleed. In the mouth, this
cancer will take on the appearance of a mouth ulcer or a white patch.
In some cases, you’ll notice a new growth on a pre-existing scar,
mole, or birthmark. Any existing lesions or sores that aren’t healing can also indicate
Make an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist right away
if you notice any of these symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment are critical
for preventing complications.
Causes Squamous Cell Cancer?
Skin cancer is caused by mutations that occur in skin cell DNA.
These changes cause abnormal cells to multiply out of control. When this occurs
in the squamous cells, the condition is known as SCC.
UV radiation is the most common cause of the DNA mutations that lead
to skin cancer. UV radiation is found in sunlight as well as in tanning lamps
While frequent exposure to UV radiation greatly increases your
risk of skin cancer, the condition can also develop in people who don’t spend
much time in the sun or in tanning beds. These people may be genetically
predisposed to skin cancer, or they may have weakened immune systems that
increase their likelihood of getting skin cancer. Those who have received
radiation treatment for other skin conditions may also be at greater risk of
Are the Risk Factors for Squamous Cell Cancer?
Risk factors for SCC include:
- having fair skin
- having light-colored hair and blue, green, or
- having long-term exposure to UV radiation
- living in sunny regions or at a high altitude
- having a history of multiple severe sunburns, especially
if they occurred early in life
- having a history of being exposed to chemicals,
such as arsenic
Is Squamous Cell Cancer Diagnosed?
Your doctor will first perform a physical exam and inspect any
abnormal areas for signs of SCC. They’ll also ask you about your medical
history. If SCC is suspected, your doctor may decide to take a biopsy to
confirm the diagnosis.
A biopsy usually involves removing a very small portion of the
affected skin. The skin sample is then sent to a laboratory for testing. In
some cases, your doctor may need to remove a larger part or all of the abnormal
growth for testing. Talk to your doctor about any potential scarring or biopsy
Is Squamous Cell Cancer Treated?
Treatment for SCC varies. Treatment is based on:
- the extent and severity of your cancer
- your age
- your overall health
- the location of the cancer
If SCC is caught early, the condition can usually be successfully
treated. It becomes harder to cure once it has spread. Many treatments can be
performed as in-office procedures.
- In Mohs’
micrographic surgery, your doctor uses a scalpel to remove the
abnormal skin and some of the surrounding tissue. The sample is immediately
examined under a microscope. If there are any cancer cells in the sample, the
process is repeated until no cancer cells are found.
- During excisional
surgery, your doctor removes the cancer cells as well as a thin
layer of healthy skin in the surrounding area. Stitches are used to close the
wound. The sample is then sent to a laboratory to ensure the entire cancerous
area has been removed.
also called curettage and electrodesiccation, involves scraping off the cancer
and burning the skin to kill cancer cells. This process is typically done more
than once to ensure thorough treatment and complete removal of the cancer.
- During cryosurgery,
your doctor uses liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy the
cancerous tissue. Like electrosurgery, this treatment is repeated multiple
times to make sure all cancerous tissue has been eliminated.
- Radiation uses
high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. This treatment is administered
externally by a machine, which aims the rays at the affected area. Radiation is
often performed multiple times a week for several weeks.
Some doctors may also use photodynamic therapy, laser surgery,
and topical medications to treat SCC. However, the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration hasn’t approved these methods for treating SCC:
- Photodynamic therapy, or PDT, involves the
application of a photosensitizing substance to the cancerous areas. The
following day, the areas that were medicated are exposed to a strong light for
several minutes. This activates the medication that was applied and kills
- Laser surgery uses a laser to remove areas of
skin that are abnormal.
- Topical medications, such as
5-fluorouracil and imiquimod, that are used to treat other skin cancers may
also help treat SCC.
Once SCC has been treated, it’s critical to attend all follow-up
visits with your doctor. SCC can return, and it’s important to monitor your
skin for any precancerous or cancerous areas at least once per month.
Is the Outlook for People with Squamous Cell Cancer?
Early detection of SCC is key to successful treatment. If SCC
isn’t treated in its early stages, the cancer may spread to other areas of the
body, including the lymph nodes and organs. Once this occurs, the condition can
Those with weakened immune systems due to certain medical
conditions, such as HIV, AIDS or leukemia, have a greater risk of developing more
serious forms of SCC.
Can Squamous Cell Cancer Be Prevented?
To help reduce your risk for SCC, follow these tips:
- Limit your sun exposure.
- Avoid the sun during the hottest part of the
day, which is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Wear sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 15 whenever
you go out in the sun.
- Wear sunglasses with UV ray protection.
- Wear a hat and cover your skin when working outside.
- Avoid using tanning beds and lamps.
- Protect your skin during winter as well because winter
rays can be especially dangerous.
- Check your skin each month for any new or
- See a dermatologist once per year for a
full-body skin check.
Medically Reviewed by:
Jul 23, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.