What is squamous cell carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma is one of the most common forms of skin cancer. This type of cancer affects the cells that make up your skin's upper layers. It typically forms on the parts of your skin that are exposed to sunlight. However, it can occur anywhere on your body where squamous cells are present — primarily the upper layer of your skin.

It's easy to detect in the early stages, highly treatable and not often life threatening.

Nearly one million new cases of this cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Common related conditions
Skin Cancer Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)

Causes of squamous cell carcinoma

The main cause of squamous cell carcinoma is exposure to UV radiation over time. This type of radiation is found in sunlight and from the artificial lights in tanning beds. UV radiation damages the DNA in your skin, causing the cells to start growing out of control.

That's why this type of cancer often forms on areas that frequently get sunlight, such as your head and neck.

Exposure to toxic substances can lead to the cancer forming on other areas of your body that don't usually get sunlight.

Because doctors know what causes squamous cell carcinoma in many cases, there are things you can do to protect yourself from it.

Avoiding tanning beds, limiting sun exposure at the time of day when the sun is the brightest, wearing protective clothing and sunscreen and alerting your doctor to any skin changes can go a long way in preventing squamous cell carcinoma.

Risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma

Anyone is at risk for developing skin cancer. That's why doctors recommend wearing sunscreen and covering up your skin when you're spending any time in the sun. Prolonged exposure to the sun is the number one risk factor for developing this type of cancer. There are other risk factors that can increase your chances of getting it, including:

  • Using tanning beds
  • Having skin cancer previously
  • History of sunburns as an adult
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Having fair skin or a light complexion
  • Having precancerous lesions on your skin
  • Having one or more blistering sunburns as a child or teen
  • Having a genetic condition called xeroderma pigmentosum, which lowers your body's ability to repair damage that UV light causes to your skin

Symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinomas appear as rough or scaly patches on your skin. They're usually not painful, but they can bleed if you scratch them.

It's common to mistake squamous cell carcinoma for warts. Other times, it might look more like open sores with crusty surfaces.

Squamous cell carcinomas can be flesh-colored or red in appearance.

Diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma

The diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma starts with the doctor learning your complete medical history. They'll ask you questions about your lifestyle that may focus on your health.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and look at your skin for signs of squamous cell carcinoma. If you have unusual-looking spots on your skin, your doctor will remove a sample to send for testing. This test is called a biopsy. The results of the test will determine if the cells are squamous cell carcinoma or another skin condition.

Treatments for squamous cell carcinoma

Surgery is the most common treatment for squamous cell carcinoma. Some types of surgery include freezing, laser and simple excision.

In very minor cases, your doctor can treat squamous cell carcinoma with a topical anti-cancer medication. You apply it directly to your skin, and no surgery is needed.

Depending on the size, location and aggressiveness of the cancer, the removal process can cause scarring. Your doctor may recommend skin reconstruction to fade scars after the operation.

Deeper tumors are sometimes treated with radiation therapy.

Recovery from squamous cell carcinoma

Most people with squamous cell carcinoma recover completely following treatment, according to the American Cancer Society. Treatments can remove the cancer cells completely. Because the treatments are usually minor, you can expect to get back to your normal activities within a few days.

Sometimes, doctors can't completely remove advanced squamous cell carcinoma. Your doctor will help you create a plan that can maintain your quality of life while you live with the disease. You'll need to attend regular follow-up appointments. Your doctor may also discuss lifestyle changes that can keep you healthy.

Once you've had squamous cell carcinoma, it's common for it to come back again. This is especially true if you spend a lot of time in the sun without proper protection. It's very important to talk to your doctor about the most effective ways to protect your skin when you're outdoors. You should also perform monthly skin exams at home to look for changes.

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