Squamous Cell Carcinoma


There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. The outer layer of the skin is made up of squamous cells. Below the squamous cells are the basal cells. Melanocytes, from which melanoma develops, are pigmented (sun-blocking) cells which are found in the lower and mid-level of the outer layer of the skin (epidermis).

Background Information

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer affecting nearly 100,000 Americans each year. Incidence is higher in men than women, and tends to occur in older individuals, although rates are increasing in young adults and children. Most squamous cell skin cancers can be cured, although individuals with these types of cancer have a higher risk for developing other skin cancers. In a small percentage of cases, this tumor spreads (i.e., metastasizes) to distant organs and may be fatal. Squamous cell carcinoma occurs most frequently as a result of unprotected ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure, either from sunlight or artificial sources such as tanning booths. Some of this exposure may have occurred recently, however, much of it may be due to exposures that happened many years earlier. Although this skin cancer rarely spreads to other organs of the body, it can cause destruction of surrounding tissue. Thus, early detection and treatment are recommended.

Early Indicators:
It is important to be aware of the marks on your body, including moles, blemishes, freckles, etc. The American Cancer Society recommends checking your skin once a month to monitor any changes in these marks. Pay attention to any new growths, spots or bumps that are getting larger (over a few months or one to two years), or to any sores that donít heal within three months. Squamous cell carcinomas may appear as growing lumps, often with a rough surface, or as flat reddish patches in the skin that grow slowly. Squamous cell carcinoma may have several different appearances on your skin.

Risk Factors:
The most common risk factors that can increase an individualís likelihood of developing a squamous cell carcinoma include chronic sun exposure and exposure to chemicals or radiation. Individuals with fair skin and a tendency to burn are at an increased risk of developing some type of skin cancer. Individuals who have had skin cancer previously are at a higher risk for developing it again and should be screened more frequently.

Treatment Options

Several effective methods are available to treat squamous cell carcinoma. Your healthcare providerís choice of therapy depends on the size, location, and subtype of squamous cell carcinoma as well as your age and general health. Most squamous cell carcinomas can be completely cured with the appropriate treatment. Only a physician can determine the most appropriate treatment.

Simple Excision:
Most cases of squamous cell carcinoma can be simply removed (cut out) along with a margin of normal skin.

Mohs Surgery:
Mohs surgery, microscopically controlled surgery, is generally used when treating large tumors, tumors in certain critical locations, and those that have come back after other treatments. The cure rate is higher with Mohs surgery than any other type of treatment, however, it is complex and expensive.

This is generally the therapy of choice for cancers which are in hard to reach places that are difficult to treat surgically.

Lymph Node Removal:
In situations where the squamous cell carcinomas are deeply invasive, and your physician suspects that the cancer may have spread to your lymph nodes, they may decide to biopsy and/or remove them.

Protective Measures

There are measures that you can take to reduce your risk for developing skin cancer. It is critical to limit skin exposure to the sunís harmful rays by wearing sunglasses, broad-brimmed hats, and protective clothing. In addition, the use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF-30 or higher on all exposed skin is recommended. Avoiding tanning salons and artificial tanning devices is important as well. Conduct self-examinations and routinely visit your dermatologist for a skin examination.

Questions to Ask Your Healthcare Provider
  • Are there any other tests that we need to perform?
  • Where is my cancer located and has it spread?
  • What treatment do you suggest?
  • What are the benefits of this type of treatment?
  • What are the risks and side effects of this treatment option?
  • What are the steps after treatment?
  • What are the chances of recurrence after my treatment plan?
Sources for Additional Information

The content of this web page and corresponding downloadable handout is provided to you as general information and not intended as a diagnosis. Please consult with your personal physician regarding the essential details about your condition. Updated 12/2013.

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