What is squamous cell carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a type of skin cancer that originates in the squamous cells forming the outer layer of the skin. When squamous cell carcinoma occurs in locations such as the mouth, tongue and throat, it is usually named after the location (i.e. mouth cancer). Squamous cell carcinoma occurs when abnormal squamous cells grow uncontrollably in the skin. Occasionally, these abnormal cells can spread beyond the top layer of the skin to the deeper tissues and, rarely, to distant sites in the body. 

cellular changes of skin cancerThe microscopic view of the skin showing the growth of a squamous cell cancer (purple). 

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Squamous cell

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Causes

The cause of skin cancer, as with other cancers, is damage to cellular DNA. This damage results in uncontrolled growth of damaged cells, leading to tumor formation. This damage to skin cells is a result of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can come from sunlight, but also solariums and tanning beds. The intensity of the UV radiation and the time and pattern of exposure to it, all combine to affect the risk of cancer development.

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

DNA

The genetic material of all living cells and some viruses. The full name is deoxyribonucleic acid.

Radiation

Energy that is emitted, such as heat, light, or energy in electromagnetic waves. Different types of radiation can be used to diagnose and treat disease.

Tumor

A growth caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled reproduction of cells.

Risk factors

You may be at higher risk of squamous cell carcinoma if any of the following apply to you:

  • Age - the risk of skin cancer increases with age;
  • UV radiation exposure - intense exposure that leads to sunburn, or accumulative exposure, such as working outdoors;
  • Smoking - specific for squamous cell carcinoma of the lips;
  • Tanning - using sun beds and solariums;
  • Family history of squamous cell carcinoma;
  • A weakened immune system, and;
  • Fair skin.

Radiation

Energy that is emitted, such as heat, light, or energy in electromagnetic waves. Different types of radiation can be used to diagnose and treat disease.

Squamous cell

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Stages

Treatment outcomes can vary greatly depending on the stage of cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma is staged according to the size and spread of the original tumor in the nearby area and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as lymph nodes and organs. 

Stage 0

This is also called Bowen's disease, or carcinoma in situ. It refers to the presence of cancerous cells that are contained to their place of origin, in this case the skin.

Stage I

The cancer is 2cm or less in size and has one or none of the following features: it is more than 2mm thick, has grown into the lower layer of the skin, is near a nerve, started on the ear or lip, or looks very abnormal under a microscope.

Stage II

The cancer is greater than 2cm and has two or more of the following features: it has grown into the lower layer of the skin, is near a nerve, started on the ear or lip, or looks very abnormal under a microscope.

Stage III

The cancer has spread to a lymph node on the same side of the body and this lymph node is less than 3cm in size, or the cancer has invaded the bones of the face.

Stage IV

The cancer has spread to a lymph node on the same side of the body and this lymph node is greater than 3cm, or has spread to multiple lymph nodes on either side of the body, or throughout the body to other sites.

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Lymph node

A small organ of the lymphatic system containing many immune cells. Lymph nodes, also known as lymph glands, are the sites where many interactions between immune cells and foreign materials occur.

Nerve

One or more fibers that transmit signals of sensation and motion between the brain or spinal cord and other parts of the body.

Squamous cell

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Tumor

A growth caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled reproduction of cells.

Signs and symptoms

Squamous cell carcinoma can appear as a flat reddish patch that grows slowly, or a rough bump on the skin that can be dome-shaped and crusty. Squamous cell carcinoma is generally slow-growing and frequently forms an ulcer that will not heal. Some squamous cell carcinomas begin as pre-cancerous growths called actinic keratosis, which appear as small, pink, itchy, scaly patches.

Squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, on the face.Visual appearance of a squamous cell carcinoma on the face. 

Squamous cell

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Methods for diagnosis

Physical examination

Your doctor will examine the abnormal skin section and, if there are any concerns about the cells being potentially cancerous, will perform further tests.

Skin biopsy

A biopsy is a tissue sample taken for microscopic examination in the laboratory. A local anesthetic is often used during biopsies, but this depends on the size of the sample to be removed. Your doctor will choose the best type of biopsy and recommend if an anesthetic is required. There are three main types of skin biopsies:

  • Incisional biopsies, which involve the removal of the entire abnormal area of skin with a scalpel;
  • Punch biopsies, which involve the removal of a small circle of the whole skin layer, much like a hole puncher removes holes in paper, and;
  • Shave biopsies, which involve shaving off the top layer of skin.

Biopsy for skin cancer, diagnosis of skin cancer, grading of skin cancer.A punch biopsy procedure to remove a skin sample for skin cancer analysis. 

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Local anesthetic

A type of medication that, when administered to an area, creates a localized loss of sensation by blocking nerve activity.

Types of treatment

Treatment usually involves removal of the cancer at the site where it developed. In the vast majority of cases, this provides the cure.

Simple excision

This is the surgical removal of the abnormal tissue. It is usually performed as a minor procedure, in which a cut is made around the cancer and all the tissue containing cancerous cells is removed.  

Cryotherapy

Liquid nitrogen is used to freeze-kill abnormal cells.

Mohs' micrographic surgery

The skin is removed one layer at a time and immediately examined under a microscope for cancer. Layers are removed until no trace of cancer is found.

Electrodessication and curettage

Electrodessication and curettage is a simple surgical technique used to remove smaller squamous cell carcinomas. It involves using  an instrument called a curette, which looks like a spoon with a sharp edge, to remove the tissue. This is followed by electrodessication, which uses a needle electrode to apply an electric current to the tissue to stop (cauterize) any bleeding.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses focused X-rays to destroy cancerous cells and is most commonly used in the treatment of large squamous cell carcinomas, or in situations where the tumor has spread. As the radiation beams hit normal tissue as well as cancerous tissue, radiation therapy is associated with some side effects. For example, radiation directed at the mouth can cause damage to the salivary glands, which then leads to a dry mouth and dental problems.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy works by attacking cancer cells and stopping their reproduction. Various medications are used, which can be administered either intravenously or orally. Chemotherapy is generally only used for cancers that are very large, or that have spread from the original site of the tumor.

Side effects occur because chemotherapy can also affect the growth of healthy cells. Your doctor will monitor such side effects and choose the most appropriate dose and type of medication for your situation.

Biological therapy

There is ongoing research into the use of biological therapies for the treatment of squamous cell carcinoma. These drugs target receptors that are involved in regulating the growth of cancer cells. Biological therapies can block this process, inhibiting the growth of the cancer. 

Other therapies

Some people diagnosed with cancer seek out complementary and alternative therapies. None of these alternative therapies are proven to cure cancer, but some can help people feel better when used together with conventional medical treatment. It is important to discuss any treatments with your doctor before starting them.

Cells

The fundamental unit of life; the simplest living unit that can exist, grow, and reproduce independently. The human body is composed of trillions of cells of many kinds.

Chemotherapy

A medication-based treatment, usually used in the treatment of cancers. There are numerous, different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be prescribed by a specialist. These can commonly be used alongside other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

Intravenously

Within a vein.

Radiation

Energy that is emitted, such as heat, light, or energy in electromagnetic waves. Different types of radiation can be used to diagnose and treat disease.

Squamous cell

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Tumor

A growth caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled reproduction of cells.

Salivary glands

The glands in the mouth that produce saliva (spit).

Potential complications

Treatment side effects

In rare cases when the squamous cell carcinoma has spread throughout the body, requiring the use of systemic chemotherapy, side effects potentially include fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Other side effects may be associated with particular agents.

Advanced cancer

Metastasis

This is when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and lymphatic system, affecting the vital function of organs. This is very uncommon in the case of squamous cell carcinoma.

Chemotherapy

A medication-based treatment, usually used in the treatment of cancers. There are numerous, different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be prescribed by a specialist. These can commonly be used alongside other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

Fatigue

A state of exhaustion and weakness.

Lymphatic system

A network of vessels, lymph nodes, the spleen and other organs that transport lymph fluid between tissues and bloodstream.

Squamous cell

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Prognosis

Prognosis varies according to the stage of the cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma generally has an excellent prognosis, as metastases are uncommon. Based on this, your doctor will discuss further treatment details suitable for your situation. 

Squamous cell

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Metastases

Of a tumor, to spread out to other areas of the body.

Prevention

The best way to prevent skin cancer is by minimizing your exposure to UV radiation, which can be done by avoiding sunlight during the times specific to your state, [1 ] seeking out shade and wearing protective clothing, such as hats and long-sleeved shirts with collars, to protect the arms and neck. Avoiding sun tanning and tanning beds is one of the easiest things you can do to help lower your risk.

If you are at high risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma - for instance, if you are taking medications for long-term suppression of your immune system or have had many squamous cell carcinomas in the past - your doctor may talk to you about other means of prevention. Vitamin A derivatives, called retinoids, have been shown to be effective in prevention of development of new squamous cell carcinomas.

Radiation

Energy that is emitted, such as heat, light, or energy in electromagnetic waves. Different types of radiation can be used to diagnose and treat disease.

Squamous cell

Thin, flat cells found in the skin and other linings in the body.

Vitamin A

A fat-soluble vitamin essential for skeletal growth, good vision and reproduction.

1. UV and sun protection times. Australian Government – Bureau of Meteorology. Accessed 20 March 2015 from

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