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What is Squamous Cell Carcinoma?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Squamous cell carcinoma is an extremely common form of skin cancer which is usually benign, especially if caught early. In almost 97% of cases, the cancer can be excised and the patient will fully recover. In other instances, this cancer has the potential to metastasize, spreading to other portions of the body and creating serious health problems.

This carcinoma attacks the epithelium, the upper layer of the skin. The epithelium has special cells known as squamous cells which are flattened, and in cross-section, they resemble scales. These cells perform a number of important functions for the body, such as promoting gas exchange. In addition to appearing on the skin, squamous cell carcinoma can also attack squamous cells in other parts of the body, like internal organs, the tongue, and so forth.

The first sign of squamous cell carcinoma is usually a reddened, scaly patch on the skin. Sometimes a lump or nodule will develop. As the scaly patch spreads, it will start to form lesions and a thick crust. If allowed to spread, the growth can eat into the surrounding cells, causing extensive tissue loss. If it happens to be malignant, it can spread to internal organs and the rest of the body.

Treatment for squamous cell carcinoma involves total excision of the carcinoma. Many doctors simply cut the cancer out, but it can also be frozen or burned away. Most doctors like to ensure that the margins are clean, and they may take a biopsy to confirm that the patient had squamous cell carcinoma, and that the carcinoma has been fully removed. The biopsy will also test to determine whether the carcinoma was in situ, meaning that it would only attack the surface layers, or invasive, with the potential to spread.

The biggest risk factor for squamous cell carcinoma, along with other skin conditions like basal cell carcinoma and melanoma, is pale skin and frequent sun exposure. Exposure to certain chemicals may also increase the risk. If you have light skin, you should protect yourself from skin cancers by applying suitable sunscreen, and shielding yourself from the sun with wide-brimmed hats and loose-fitting long garments. Remember that even when the weather is overcast, harmful UV radiation can still penetrate!

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By B707 — On Aug 25, 2011

Besides protecting yourself from the sun,the best way to avoid squamous cell carcinoma is to examine your body for any unusual growth or patchy areas and have a dermatologist look at them right away. Also, go to your dermatologist for a complete exam once a year.

I have had one episode of squamous cell carcinoma on my neck. It was cut out completely and the area was biopsied twice just to make sure it hadn't spread.

I was surprised to learn from this article that squamous cell carcinoma can settled into our tongue or other soft tissue.

By MrsWinslow — On Aug 25, 2011

@EdRick - It is unusual, but not impossible, for a squamous cell carcinoma skin cancer to spread to other organs. Squamous cell carcinoma is not always a skin cancer. It can affect the same kind of cells in other areas of the body.

A coworker of mine developed an SCC in an old scar. Fortunately, it was readily visible to hm and he had it checked out soon; his doctor told him that squamous cell cancer is more likely to spread if it starts out in a scar, on your lip, or in certain other places. Skin isn't one of the ones where it is more likely to become invasive.

Basal cell carcinoma is more common and is always a skin cancer. My aunt had one of these removed last year; they're really common in people with fair skin.

By EdRick — On Aug 25, 2011

Squamous cell carcinomas can metastasize?! I thought that melanoma was the only skin cancer with the potential to become metastatic and thus the only skin cancer with the potential to be fatal.

My mother has had a basal cell skin cancer, so my whole family is very vigilant about moles. She had several other suspicious moles removed, but only the one was malignant. Basal cell carcinoma can be disfiguring if it has spread over a large area of skin, but my understanding is that it is not potentially fatal, even if untreated.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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