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Introduction to Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Squamous Cell Skin Cancer

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Updated February 05, 2014

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma

Photo © A.D.A.M.
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the second most common type of skin cancer. It begins in the squamous cells, which are found in the upper layer of the epidermis (skin). Fortunately, SCC is curable in 95% of cases if detected early. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with SCC, this overview will help you better understand the disease and make more informed treatment choices.

Incidence

Every year in the U.S., approximately 200,000 to 250,000 cases of SCC are diagnosed, and 2,500 people die from the disease. While 96% of SCCs remain localized to the skin, the small percentage of remaining cases can spread to distant organs and become life-threatening.

Who is at Risk?

SCC primarily develops in fair-skinned, middle-aged and elderly people who've had long-term sun exposure. SCCs may also occur where skin has suffered certain kinds of injury: burns, scars, long-standing sores, sites previously exposed to X-rays or certain chemicals (such as arsenic and petroleum by-products). In addition, chronic skin inflammation or medical conditions that suppress the immune system over an extended period of time may encourage development of the disease. Finally, those who have been diagnosed with skin cancer previously are at a greater risk of recurrence. There are numerous less common risk factors for SCC as well.

Appearance

SCC most often appears as a crusted or scaly area of skin with a red inflamed base that resembles a growing tumor, non-healing ulcer, or crusted-over patch of skin (squamous cell skin cancer pictures are available). While most are commonly found on sun-exposed areas of the body (especially on the face, ear, neck, lips, and backs of the hands), it can develop anywhere, including the inside of the mouth and the genitalia. It can also begin within scars or skin ulcers on other places on the body. SCC may arise from actinic keratoses, which are dry, scaly lesions that may be skin-colored, reddish-brown or yellowish-black.

Treatment

The majority of SCCs are not serious if detected early and treated quickly. However, SCC can grow quickly, damaging healthy skin around it, and sometimes even reaching into bone and cartilage. With delays in treatment, it may be difficult to eliminate and could result in disfigurement. Squamous cell carcinomas that are at high risk for metastasis are usually found on the lip, ear, nose, or in persons with weakened immune systems.

There is no one best method to treat all cases of SCC. The choice is determined by many factors, including the location, type, size, whether it is a primary tumor or recurrent carcinoma, the health and preference of the patient, and the preference of the physician. Current squamous cell skin cancer treatments include:

  • curettage-electrodessication
  • topical creams such as Aldara (imiquimod)
  • cryosurgery
  • Mohs micrographic surgery
  • surgical excision (removal)
  • radiation
  • laser therapy
  • photodynamic therapy

Squamous cell carcinoma is a common but readily curable cancer of the skin. However, treatment is more effective if it's detected early. Please see your physician promptly if you find any unusual lesions during your regular skin self-exams.

Source:

"Squamous Cell Carcinoma." The Skin Cancer Foundation. 13 October 2008.

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