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Quick Facts

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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What is squamous cell carcinoma?

Carcinoma is a medical word for cancer. Squamous cells are a type of cell in your skin. So squamous cell carcinoma is a kind of skin cancer. It starts in the outermost layer of your skin (epidermis).

  • Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer (after basal cell carcinoma)

  • It usually develops on skin that’s been exposed to the sun, but it can grow anywhere on the skin or in the mouth

  • Fair-skinned people are more likely to get it than darker-skinned people

  • Usually squamous cell carcinoma doesn't spread, and doctors can cure the cancer by removing it

  • Sometimes the cancer spreads to other parts of your body and can be deadly

What causes squamous cell carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma is often caused by sun exposure. Skin that has been damaged or injured is more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma.

What are the symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma?

At first, a growth on your skin that is:

  • Thick, red, and scaly

  • Irregular in shape

  • Crusty

This growth doesn't heal or go away.

If not treated, the growth can become:

  • Raised, firm, and wart-like

  • An open sore and grow into the tissue underneath it

How can doctors tell if I have squamous cell carcinoma?

Doctors will do a biopsy (cut out a small sample of your skin to look at under a microscope).

How do doctors treat squamous cell carcinoma?

To treat squamous cell carcinoma, doctors will do at least one of these:

  • Scrape and burn it with an electric needle

  • Cut it out with surgery

  • Kill the cancer with extreme cold (cryosurgery) or radiation

  • Put chemotherapy medicine on the cancer

  • If the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, your doctor may use radiation therapy

How can I prevent squamous cell carcinoma?

The best way to prevent squamous cell carcinoma is to limit sun exposure:

  • Stay out of the sun—sit in the shade, try to avoid the sun between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm

  • Don't sunbathe or use tanning beds

  • Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, and hats with broad brims

  • Use sunscreen that’s at least 30 sun protection factor (SPF)—it's important to use more sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating

See a doctor if you see a change in a skin growth that doesn't go away after a few weeks.

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