Squamous cell carcinoma can often develop from actinic keratoses, which can be scaly, dry, or raised patches of skin.
A Guide to Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)
Read on to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatments for squamous cell carcinoma.
SCC starts with out-of-control cell growth. This unusual growth results from changes or mutations in the skin’s squamous cells.
The damage accumulates with time until the body can no longer repair it. This damage can take years to turn into cancer. However, people with more exposure or prolonged exposure can develop cancer more quickly.
- exposure to certain chemicals, such as tar in cigarettes
- severe skin damage from burns
- chronic ulcers or sores
- human papillomavirus virus (HPV)
- immunosuppressive medications, which could lead to
more aggressive Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to sourceSCC
Squamous cell carcinoma pictures
CLS Digital Arts/Shutterstock
Squamous cell carcinoma may look like open sores.
Reproduced with permission from ©DermNet NZ www.dermnetnz.org 2022
In some cases, squamous cell carcinoma can protrude from the skin in horn-like growths.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
SCC usually appears on sun-damaged skin. However, it can occur anywhere, including the palms of the hands.
When actinic keratosis does become SCC, the lesions may look like red or pink raised, round growths.
Other possible presentations for this condition are:
- brown spots resembling age spots
- dome-shaped, firm growths that may be tender
- horn-like growths that may look like small rhinoceros horns
- open sores that may have raised borders
- sores that develop on old scars
- wart-like growths
- discolored, scaly patches
For people with darker skin tones, these lesions can also be:
Some people experience itchiness, tenderness, and pins-and-needles sensations around the affected area. Numbness may also occur.
Sometimes, SCC can affect the inside of your mouth or your nails. Inside the mouth, it can look like a sore or a white area. It can also look like a dark streak under the nail or cause the nail to disappear.
If SCC occurs in the genital area, it may be wart-like or a raised, pink or brownish patch.
To diagnose SCC, doctors may begin by asking you about your medical history and performing a physical examination. A skin biopsy of the affected area
For low-risk SCC, doctors may use a topical treatment and photodynamic therapy to remove cancerous cells. Some people may also be able to apply topical chemotherapy creams at home.
- excision, which cuts out the cancer along with a ring of healthy skin
- Mohs surgery, which removes the cancer one layer at a time until cancer cells are no longer present
- curettage and electrodessication, which removes the growth and uses an electrical current to remove any remaining cancer cells
Radiation therapy is an alternative when surgery is not an option. Doctors may also recommend radiation therapy in addition to surgery.
When SCC spreads, more aggressive treatment is necessary. These advanced cancers may require a combination of:
- radiation therapy
- systemic chemotherapy
Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to improving the outlook for people with SCC. In the early stages, treatment for SCC is very effective.
Without treatment, SCC may spread and cause complications. Later stages will also require more aggressive treatments.
SCC is slow-growing and treatable in its early stages. Without treatment, however, it can spread deep into the skin.
When squamous cell tumors grow deep, they can damage nerves, blood vessels, and other tissues under the skin. SCC can also spread to lymph nodes and other areas of the body.
UV light exposure from the sun or indoor tanning equipment is the primary risk factor for SCC. People who live in areas with intense year-round sunshine tend to have higher exposure and risk of skin cancer.
Other SCC risk factors include:
- light skin, light eyes, and naturally light (undyed) hair
- history of skin cancer or blistering sunburns during adolescence
- actinic keratosis
- skin that rarely tans
- skin that freckles or burns easily
- weakened immune system due to a medical condition or medication
- history of HPV
- history of chronic skin infections or inflammation from burns, scars, or other conditions
The main way to lower your risk of developing SCC is to avoid exposure to UV light. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends the following to reduce UV light exposure and damage that can lead to skin cancer:
- Apply a daily UVA/UVB sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more.
- Avoid indoor tanning.
- Move activities indoors when the UV index is high.
- Schedule outdoor activities before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
- Use or create shade when outside.
- Wear hats, sunglasses, and clothing with an ultraviolet protective factor (UPF).
None of these strategies offer total protection from UV light by themselves. As such, it may be best to combine several of them.
Your skin cancer prevention routine should also include regular skin checks. You can either conduct these on your own or with a medical professional.
These are a few other common questions people ask about SCC. Clare Wightman, MS, PA-C, has reviewed the answers.
What is the survival rate for squamous cell carcinoma?
Treatment is very effective for curing early stage SCC. However, advanced or metastasized SCC can result in poorer outcomes, with a 5-year survival rate of
How quickly does squamous cell carcinoma spread?
SCC spreads slowly. However, without prompt treatment, it can grow deep into the skin and become harder to treat.
Do you need chemotherapy for squamous cell carcinoma?
Is squamous cell carcinoma common?
SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer after basal cell carcinoma.
Because SCC can spread, it is important to contact your doctor promptly if you notice a new or changing skin lesion. If you have a high risk of developing skin cancer, you may need regular screenings with your doctor. This is also true if you have already had skin cancer.
Ask your doctor how often to perform self-exams and schedule professional skin exams.