Squamous cell carcinoma is a form of skin cancer. It is the second most common form of skin cancer.
The cancer develops in the uppermost layer of skin cells. Squamous cell carcinoma usually grows slowly. It is rarely fatal if treated early. However, the cancer can be lethal if it spreads beyond the skin.
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Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Eventually these uncontrolled cells form a growth or tumor. The growths invade and take over nearby tissue. It is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the cells but it is probably a combination of genetics and the environment.
Areas of skin that are damaged have a higher risk of cancer. Skin that is regularly exposed to the sun is more likely to develop skin cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma may also develop in skin that has scars, burns, or exposure to chemicals or radiation.
Factors that may increase your chances of squamous cell carcinoma:
- History of radiation or ultraviolet light treatment
sunburns, freckling, or long periods of sun exposure
- A personal history of skin cancer
- A family history of skin cancer
- Blonde or red hair
- Blue or green eyes
- Fair skin that rarely tans
- Treatments or medicines that suppress the immune system, or a previous organ transplant
- Frequent use of tanning beds
- Exposure to cancer-causing chemicals such as arsenic, tar, or some insecticides
- Past infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)
Symptoms may include:
- A raised red patch that is scaly or rough
- A raised patch of skin that may appear to have horn-like rough edges
- A long-standing patch that may be reddish, pink, flesh-colored, or reddish-brown
- A long-standing sore that will not heal with simple at-home treatment
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
The skin growth will be examined. A sample of the growth will be taken and examined for cancer cells. This will help determine the stage and type of the cancer.
The information will be used to guide treatment and make a prognosis.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:
- Mohs micrographic surgery—surgery to remove skin in thin layers to be examined under a microscope
- Removal of the growth with simple surgery
- Plastic surgery to repair any cosmetic problems that occur after treatment
Other treatments may be used based on the size or microscopic findings of the cancer. In some cases, surgery may not be an option. Other treatments may include:
- Freezing the growth off with liquid nitrogen
- Laser treatment
- Radiation therapy
- Photodynamic therapy—a type of light therapy
- Medicated creams, especially fluorouracil or imiquimod
To help reduce the chances of squamous cell carcinoma:
- Avoid exposing your skin to the sun between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM standard time, or 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM daylight saving time.
- Protect your skin from the sun with clothing. Wear a shirt, sunglasses, and a hat with a broad brim.
- Use broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more on skin that will be exposed to the sun.
- Use a protective lip balm.
- Wear sunglasses with 99% to 100% UV absorption to protect your eyes.
- Do not use sun lamps or tanning booths.
- Get regular full-body skin exams by a dermatologist if you are at high risk for skin cancer. The doctor will check for moles, freckles, and other growths.
If you see any changes in your skin, such as new growths or changes in moles or freckles, contact your doctor for a skin exam.
Alberta Provincial Cutaneous Tumour Team. Prevention of skin cancer. Edmonton (Alberta): CancerControl Alberta; 2013 Feb. 27 p. (Clinical practice guideline; no. CU-014). Available at: https://www.guideline.gov/summaries/summary/48130?#Section420.
Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
https://www.dynamed.com/condition/cutaneous-squamous-cell-carcinoma. Updated October 23, 2017. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Squamous cell carcinoma. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/squamous-cell-carcinoma. Accessed February 25, 2015.
Squamous cell carcinoma. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic-disorders/cancers-of-the-skin/squamous-cell-carcinoma. Updated February 2017. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs. Accessed March 6, 2018.
Last reviewed March 2018 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Monica Zangwill, MD, MPH
Last Updated: 3/9/2021