Squamous Cell Carcinoma FAQs

What is squamous cell carcinoma? »

squamous cell carcinomaSquamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer. It forms in the squamous cells that make up the middle and outer layer of the skin. Most squamous cell carcinomas result from prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds or lamps. Unlike basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas can occur in more wide-ranging locations. Although more common on the sun-exposed skin on the backs of the hands, the ears, the scalp, and the lips, this form of skin cancer can occur anywhere on the body, including inside the mouth and on the genitals. Not considered life threatening if treated early, like basal cell carcinoma, it can also be disfiguring. If it spreads, it can be life threatening.

What do squamous cell carcinomas look like? »

Squamous cell carcinomas appear as red scaly patches, scaly bumps, or open sores. Left alone, they become larger and destroy tissue on the skin. They can also spread to other areas of the body.

What causes squamous cell carcinomas? »

Squamous cell carcinomas of the skin develop when the flat, thin squamous cells in the outer layer of the skin develop errors in their DNA. In ordinary, healthy skin, new cells push older cells toward the skin surface, where they die and are shed. When the DNA is damaged, the squamous cells instead grow out of control, forming a squamous cell carcinoma.

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What are the signs of squamous cell carcinoma? »

Actinic keratosis - a precursor to squamous cell carcinoma or skin cancer on a man's handSquamous cell carcinomas are more typical on sun-exposed skin: the scalp, the backs of the hands, the ears, and the lips. But this form of skin cancer can spread anywhere on your body.

Squamous cell carcinomas will have these characteristics:
  • A firm, red nodule
  • A flat sore with a scaly crust
  • A new sore or raised area on an old scar
  • A rough, scaly patch on your lip that can become an open sore
  • A red sore or rough patch inside your mouth
  • A red, raised patch or wart-like sore on or in the anus or on the genitals

How are squamous cell carcinomas treated? »

The methods for treating squamous cell carcinomas are the same as for basal cell carcinomas:

Treatment Through Surgery

Electrodesiccation and curettage — A curette is used to scrap out the growth, then the base is seared with an electric needle to close the blood vessels and destroy any remaining cancer cells. The squamous cell growth needs to be very small for this method to be used.

Surgical excision — This involves cutting out the cancerous lesion with a scalpel, along with a margin of healthy skin around it. This is called wide excision.

Cryosurgery — Small, superficial squamous cell carcinomas can be frozen with liquid nitrogen.

Mohs surgery — This method has the highest success rate of removing all of the squamous cell carcinoma. Your surgeon removes the squamous cell cancer layer by layer or ring by ring around the growth. After a layer is removed, it is examined immediately to check for any remaining cancer cells on the borders. If cancer cells are still found, another layer or ring is removed. This process is continued until the sample shows itself to be clean. This is especially effective for removing growths on the lips, as only the minimum amount of tissue is removed.

treatment through Drugs

Although the squamous cell carcinoma needs to be relatively small and superficial, topical treatments can be successful. These drugs work by inflaming the area where they are applied. The body responds by sending white blood cells to attack the inflammation. These white blood cells go after the mutated basal cells. Aldara, Efudex, and Fluoroplex are three of the most used drugs.

What is the success rate for treating squamous cell carcinoma? »

Unlike basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma tends to be more invasive and is likely to spread if left untreated. As with basal cell carcinoma, Mohs micrographic surgery has the best success rates, at 97 percent. Excision has a 92 percent success rate. For low-risk, small tumors, curettage, and electrodesiccation is successful in 96 percent of cases, but it cannot be used for larger, deeper growths.

Squamous cell carcinoma is generally not considered life-threatening if treated early. However, if left untreated, squamous cell carcinoma can spread and it can then become life-threatening. Reliable statistics are not available, however, because most of these cancers are treated in a dermatologist’s office.

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American Society for Mohs Surgery
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