Squamous Cell Carcinoma

What is squamous cell carcinoma?

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Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that develops in the squamous cells. These cells are flat and thin, residing on the outermost layer of the skin. When squamous cell DNA changes, either as a result of damage or a genetic mutation, cancer can form. Squamous cell carcinoma most often develops on parts of the body that experience frequent sunlight, like the arms, neck, upper back, and face.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common type of skin cancer, with around 1.8 million people diagnosed in the United States every twelve months. This type of cancer is not typically life threatening, but around 15,000 Americans die from squamous cell carcinoma each year. If left untreated, it can metastasize, or spread. Over time, this can cause serious and life-threatening complications.

If you believe you may have squamous cell carcinoma, schedule a visit with your physician or a dermatologist. A doctor can properly diagnose and treat this type of skin cancer. Even if you don’t have any new growths or concerning moles, receiving frequent skin checks is an important piece of a regular healthcare routine.

What causes squamous cell carcinoma?

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Like all skin cancers, squamous cell carcinoma occurs as a result of a mutation in the skin cells. Over time, these abnormal cells multiply, creating a cancerous growth.

In most cases, these mutations are caused by exposure to UV radiation, often via the sun. For this reason, squamous cell carcinoma is most likely to develop on parts of the body that receive the most sun exposure. However, UV radiation is not the only squamous cell carcinoma cause. The following may also contribute to developing this type of cancer.

  • Smoking: People who smoke are more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma than people who avoid cigarettes. In these cases, the cancer is likely to develop on the lips. Smoking puts people at risk for developing other cancers, like lung cancer.
  • Genetics: People who have close family members with a history of squamous cell carcinoma are more likely to develop the disease themselves. A recent study found that those with a family history of skin cancer are around four times more likely to develop it.
  • Chemical and Radiation Exposure: Exposure to chemicals like paraffin, arsenic, coal tar, and some types of petroleum can increase a person’s chance of developing squamous cell carcinoma. Additionally, radiation therapy may increase skin cancer risk.
  • Immunosuppression: People who have suppressed immune systems, either because of a treatment or a chronic illness, are at a higher risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma. This includes organ transplant recipients, people undergoing chemotherapy, and folks with certain conditions, like AIDS, leukemia, or AIDS.
  • Other Skin Growths/Damage: Scars, burns, and birthmarks are more likely to develop cancerous cells. Additionally, actinic keratosis, common pre-cancerous growths, may eventually turn into squamous cell carcinoma.

Are there any risk factors for developing squamous cell carcinoma?

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There are a variety of characteristics that may increase a person’s likelihood of having squamous cell carcinoma. For example, people who have light features, fair skin, and blue or green eyes are more susceptible to skin cancer. Additionally, skin cancer is more common amongst people who live at high altitude, who have a history of severe sunburns, and those who live in sunny parts of the world.

What are the symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma?

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Squamous cell carcinoma often presents as red, scaly patches. It may also resemble wart-like growths or open sores. If a new or changing growth on your skin has any of the following characteristics, visit a dermatologist as soon as possible.

  • Raised borders
  • Scaly or reddish pigmentation
  • New growth on an existing birthmark or scar
  • Horn-shaped mole or growth
  • Dome-shaped mole or growth
  • Brown pigmentation resembling an age spot or freckle
  • Open sore that does not heal

Squamous cell carcinoma is also known to develop in the mouth, especially amongst people who smoke. These symptoms differ from cancer that may grow on the skin. They can include:

  • Difficulty or pain while swallowing
  • Growths inside of the mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Red or white patches inside the mouth
  • Rough, sore patches inside the mouth

Remember that squamous cell carcinoma prognosis improves with fast treatment. If you suspect you may have a form of skin cancer, schedule an appointment with a physician. Quickly addressing a skin cancer can reduce the risk of complications and metastasizing.

How is squamous cell carcinoma diagnosed?

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A doctor will use a variety of methods to diagnose squamous cell carcinoma. They will begin with a visual inspection to determine whether the growth appears dangerous. The doctor will also review your personal medical history, as well as the history of cancer in proximal and extended family. This will help them determine the likelihood that your growth is cancerous.

If the doctor suspects squamous cell carcinoma – or any other type of skin cancer – they will order a biopsy. In this procedure, the doctor will remove a small portion of skin from the affected or suspicious area. This sample is then examined under a microscope to check for cancerous characteristics.

What are the treatments for squamous cell carcinoma?

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There are many treatments for squamous cell carcinoma. The type of treatment your doctor recommends will depend on the severity of the cancer, your overall health, and where the cancer is located.

In many cases, squamous cell carcinoma can be treated with a simple outpatient surgery inside an office. These superficial surgeries aim to remove all cancerous cells, given the squamous cell carcinoma has not yet spread. These surgeries include the following:

  • Electrodessication and Curettage: Also known as electrosurgery, this procedure scrapes the cancer off the skin and burns the extraction site to kill any remaining cancer cells. Most physicians recommend several rounds of electrosurgery to ensure the cancer has been completely removed.
  • Excisional Surgery: In this surgery, the doctor will remove both the cancer cells and a layer of healthy skin surrounding the affected cells. This procedure often requires stitches.
  • Mohs Surgery: This procedure involves using a scalpel to remove thin layers of the affected skin. Over the course of several rounds, the doctor will remove a thin layer, examine it under the microscope, and continue until there are no remaining cancerous cells. This is among the most effective surgeries for people with squamous cell carcinoma that has not metastasized.
  • Cryosurgery: This type of surgery employs a strategy similar to freezing off a wart. Using liquid nitrogen, the doctor will freeze cancerous tissue, destroying it. Patients often need several rounds of cryosurgery to ensure the cancer is completely removed.

In some cases, a doctor recommend treatment in addition to or in lieu of surgery. For example, radiation therapy can be used to kill cancer cells. Systemic drugs, like Libtayo and Keytruda, are also used for aggressive cases of squamous cell carcinoma. Photodynamic therapy, also known as PDT, may also be used to kill abnormal skin cells.

What is the outlook for people with squamous cell carcinoma?

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When squamous cell carcinoma is caught early, there is little risk for developing complications. However, when not treated in its early stages, this type of skin cancer is known to metastasize. When any cancer spreads to the lymph notes or other organs, it can become aggressive very quickly.

The more aggressive a cancer, the more aggressive a treatment must be. If squamous cell carcinoma is left to metastasize, a patient may need to undergo various surgeries and/or rounds of chemotherapy to address the condition. This can affect a person’s quality of life – as well as their life expectancy.

That said, with early and effective treatment, squamous cell carcinoma is unlikely to become life-threatening. A quick and relatively painless surgery is typically enough to remove the cancerous cells. Most people are able to walk out of the doctor’s office after a short treatment.

Remember that previous cancer experience may put you at a greater risk for developing cancer in the future. If you have been diagnosed with and treated for squamous cell carcinoma, receiving routine skin checks is imperative.

Are there any ways to prevent squamous cell carcinoma?

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Yes, there are a variety of things people can do to prevent squamous cell carcinoma. Limiting sun exposure is among the most important. Wearing sunscreen, broad-rimmed hats, and skin-protecting clothing can reduce risk of UV damage. Additionally, people should avoid using tanning lamps and beds, wear sunglasses outside, and avoid outdoor activities between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when possible.

In addition to avoiding sun exposure, people should conduct regular skin checks. Schedule an annual appointment with a dermatologist is a great way to catch new growths and moles before they become dangerous. Regular, full-body skin checks are among the best prevention strategies for all types of skin cancer. If you do notice an abnormal growth, even if you’ve just visited the dermatologist, schedule an appointment as soon as possible. Squamous cell carcinoma is not usually life-threatening, but the faster the treatment, the better the outcome.