How to Identify and Treat Squamous Cell Carcinoma

 Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a prevalent type of skin cancer, is diagnosed in approximately 1.8 million individuals annually in the United States, marking it as the second most common form of skin cancer.

How to Identify and Treat Squamous Cell Carcinoma
  How to Identify and Treat Squamous Cell Carcinoma

This skin cancer arises from the abnormal and rapid proliferation of squamous cells, primarily affecting those with lighter skin tones and a history of significant sun exposure. Typically manifesting after the age of 50, the incidence of SCC has seen a dramatic increase of up to 200% over the past three decades, underscoring the critical need for awareness and prevention measures.

In this article, our focus will be on comprehending the intricacies of SCC, including its risk factors—such as HPV, HIV, and extended periods of sunburns—that elevate the likelihood of developing this condition. Beyond identifying early warning signs and symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma, we'll delve into contemporary treatment options, ranging from surgery and chemotherapy to innovative approaches tailored for different stages and types of this cancer. Additionally, prevention strategies and skin care recommendations will be discussed, framing a comprehensive approach to combatting squamous cell carcinoma and safeguarding skin health.

Understanding Squamous Cells

Squamous cells are a fundamental component of the epidermis, which is the outermost layer of the skin. These cells are characterized by their flat, thin appearance and are essential for the skin's protective barrier. 

They play a crucial role in the body's defense mechanism by forming a shield that protects underlying tissues from bacteria, viruses, and other potential environmental hazards.

Location and Function of Squamous Cells

  1. Epidermis Role: Squamous cells primarily make up the middle and outer layers of the skin, continuously shedding and being replaced to maintain the integrity of the skin's surface.
  2. Beyond the Skin: Apart from their presence in the epidermis, squamous cells also line the surfaces of the respiratory and digestive tracts. This includes coverage in hollow organs such as the bladder, kidney, and uterus, extending to the cervix, thereby playing a role in protecting these internal structures.

These cells are one of three main types found in the top layer of the skin, collectively contributing to the skin's regenerative capabilities and barrier function. Their widespread presence across different body systems highlights their integral role in both protective and functional capacities within the human body.

Risk Factors for Squamous Cell Carcinoma Ultraviolet Radiation and Skin Characteristics

  1. Primary Cause: The main culprit behind most cases of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, either from the sun or tanning beds. This radiation causes DNA damage in squamous cells, leading to abnormal changes and potentially cancerous growths.
  2. Skin Type Susceptibility: Individuals with fair skin, blond or red hair, light-colored eyes, and those who sunburn easily are particularly at risk. 

The lack of melanin in lighter skin provides less natural protection against UV radiation, increasing susceptibility to skin damage and subsequent SCC.

Genetic and Environmental Risk Factors

  • Genetic Disorders: Conditions like xeroderma pigmentosum, which impairs the skin's ability to repair DNA damage caused by UV light, significantly heighten SCC risk.
  • Environmental Exposures: Contact with arsenic, commonly found in contaminated groundwater, and certain occupational hazards can also escalate the risk. 

Additionally, exposure to ionizing radiation and radon has been identified as contributing factors to the development of SCC.

Immune System and Medical History

Weakened Immune System

Individuals with compromised immune systems, whether due to conditions like leukemia or lymphoma or as a result of immunosuppressive medications, are at elevated risk. Organ transplant recipients, who often require long-term immunosuppression, also fall into this higher-risk category.

Medical History

A history of precancerous skin lesions such as actinic keratosis or Bowen disease, and severe sunburns, particularly blistering ones from childhood, are significant risk factors. These conditions indicate previous skin damage which could lead to SCC [1].

Symptoms and Early Warning Signs Visual and Tactile Characteristics of SCC

Appearance on Skin

  • Squamous cell carcinomas often manifest as rough, scaly, red patches, open sores, or wart-like growths, which may have a central depression. These can also appear as horn-like protrusions or raised growths that might crust over, itch, or bleed.

Common Locations

  • Typically, these lesions are found on sun-exposed areas such as the face, lips, ears, scalp, shoulders, neck, back of the hands, and forearms. However, they can also develop in scars, skin sores, and other areas previously injured.

Variability in Symptoms

  • The symptoms can vary, ranging from persistent, scaly red patches with irregular borders to elevated growths with central depressions. In some cases, open sores or wart-like growths that do not heal over time are observed. 

SCC Beyond Visible Skin Areas

  • Internal Development: Squamous cell carcinoma can also develop in less visible areas such as inside the mouth, on the genitals, inside the anus, or beneath the nails. These occurrences might present as sores in the mouth or on the lips, rough patches inside the mouth, or painful swallowing.
  • Potential for Spread: If not treated timely, squamous cell carcinoma has the potential to spread to nearby lymph nodes, bones, or even distant organs, making early detection and treatment critical.

Importance of Regular Monitoring

  • Self-examinations: Regular self-examinations of the skin are crucial for early detection. This includes checking for new growths or changes in existing growths, such as changes in size, shape, color, or texture. Any mole that bleeds or sore that doesn’t heal should prompt an immediate consultation with a healthcare professional.
  • Professional Evaluations: After a diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma, it's recommended to have regular dermatological check-ups to monitor the skin and lymph nodes for any signs of recurrence or new cancer development. 

 Learning how to examine the skin and lymph nodes effectively can be lifesaving.

Treatment Options for Squamous Cell Carcinoma Surgical Treatments

Treatment Options for Squamous Cell Carcinoma Surgical Treatments

Excisional Surgery

  • This method involves the removal of the entire tumor along with a margin of surrounding healthy tissue to ensure all cancerous cells are excised.

Mohs Surgery

  • A precise surgical technique that removes the cancer layer by layer, examining each layer under a microscope until no abnormal cells remain. This method helps conserve as much healthy tissue as possible while ensuring the complete removal of cancer cells.

Curettage and Electrodesiccation

  • This procedure scrapes off the cancer with a curette followed by the application of electrical current to destroy residual cancerous cells. It is often used for smaller or superficial SCCs. 

Non-Surgical Treatments

  • Radiation Therapy: Employed for SCCs that are difficult to remove surgically, especially in sensitive areas like the eyelids, tip of the nose, or ears. It is also an option for patients who are not suitable candidates for surgery.
  • Cryosurgery: Utilizes liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy the tumor. This method is generally reserved for smaller, early-stage cancers or patients who cannot undergo surgery. 
  • Photodynamic Therapy (PDT): Involves the application of a drug that becomes active when exposed to a specific type of light, destroying cancer cells. PDT is primarily used for superficial SCCs on the face and scalp.

 Topical and Systemic Treatments

Topical Medications 

  • Creams such as 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and imiquimod are applied directly to the skin. These are suitable for treating superficial SCCs and act by triggering an immune response against cancer cells.


  • Treatments like cemiplimab or pembrolizumab harness the body's immune system to fight cancer, particularly useful in advanced SCC cases where cancer has spread beyond the skin.


  • Used in cases where SCC has spread and cannot be managed with local treatments alone. Chemotherapy drugs target and kill rapidly dividing cells, including cancer cells.

These treatment options are selected based on a variety of factors including the tumor's type, size, location, and the patient's overall health. Regular monitoring and follow-up care are crucial to manage any recurrence or new lesions effectively.

Prevention and Skin Care Recommendations Sun Protection Strategies

  1. Avoid Peak Sun Hours: Limit sun exposure, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest. If outdoor activities are unavoidable, seek shade as much as possible.
  2. Use Sunscreen Effectively: Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30, which blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if swimming or sweating. Ensure coverage on often-missed areas like the ears, feet, and the back of the neck.
  3. Wear Protective Clothing: Opt for tightly woven, dark-colored fabrics that offer better protection against the sun. Accessories like wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses with UV protection, and long-sleeved shirts should be standard.

Regular Skin Monitoring and Care

  • Self-Examinations: Regularly check your skin for any new or changing lesions, particularly those that are rough, scaly, or non-healing. Early detection of abnormal growths can significantly improve treatment outcomes.
  • Professional Skin Evaluations: Schedule annual skin exams with a dermatologist. Professional evaluations are crucial for those with high-risk factors such as a history of sunburns or extensive UV exposure.

Lifestyle and Environmental Adjustments

  1.  Avoid Tanning Beds: Steer clear of tanning beds and sun lamps, which are proven to increase the risk of skin cancer. Embrace natural skin tones as a healthier standard of beauty.
  2. Environmental Awareness: Be mindful of indirect UV exposure, which can occur through reflection from surfaces like water, sand, and concrete, or penetrate light clothing and windows.
  3. Educate and Protect All Ages: Special attention should be given to protecting children and educating them about the risks of sun exposure. 

Use appropriate sunscreens for infants over six months old and keep newborns out of direct sunlight. 


Through vigilant observation and adherence to prevention strategies, the risks associated with squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) can be substantially minimized. Our comprehensive exploration of SCC underscores the significance of understanding the direct links between UV exposure, inherent risk factors, and the development of this type of skin cancer. Recognizing early symptoms and adopting rigorous skincare routines play a pivotal role in safeguarding against the impact of SCC, emphasizing the importance of regular skin examinations and professional dermatological assessments.

The array of treatment options available for SCC, from surgical interventions to innovative non-surgical methods, offers hope and versatility in addressing this prevalent condition. It is imperative for individuals, especially those at higher risk, to engage in proactive measures for skin health, including avoiding peak sun hours, using broad-spectrum sunscreens, and wearing protective clothing. Together, these efforts contribute to the early detection and effective management of squamous cell carcinoma, thereby enhancing outcomes and preserving quality of life.


What is the primary method of treating squamous cell carcinoma?

Surgery is the most effective treatment for squamous cell carcinoma, especially when the tumors have well-defined borders. This method can be utilized on various parts of the body.

How does early-stage squamous cell carcinoma typically appear?

In its early stages, squamous cell carcinoma may manifest as flat, reddish or brownish skin patches with a rough, scaly, or crusted surface. These patches grow slowly and are commonly found on areas of the skin that receive a lot of sun exposure, such as the face, ears, neck, lips, and the backs of the hands.

What is the most effective way to diagnose squamous cell carcinoma?

The most reliable method to diagnose squamous cell carcinoma is through a biopsy. This involves removing a sample of tissue from the affected area for laboratory testing to determine the presence of cancer cells.

What is the initial treatment approach for squamous cell carcinoma?

The first line of treatment for small, early-stage squamous cell carcinomas that have not spread is excisional surgery. This procedure often suffices to treat the cancer completely.

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