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Squamous Cell Carcinoma


Vinod E. Nambudiri

, MD, MBA, EdM, Harvard Medical School

Reviewed/Revised Dec 2023
Topic Resources

Squamous cell carcinoma is a malignant tumor of epidermal keratinocytes that invades the dermis; this cancer usually occurs in sun-exposed areas. Local destruction may be extensive, and metastases occur in advanced stages. Diagnosis is by biopsy. Treatment depends on the tumor’s characteristics and may involve curettage and electrodesiccation, surgical excision, cryosurgery, or, occasionally, radiation therapy.

People with light skin are much more susceptible to squamous cell carcinoma than people with dark skin.


Symptoms and Signs of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

The clinical appearance is highly variable, but any nonhealing lesion on a sun-exposed surface should be suspect. The tumor may begin as a red papule or plaque with a scaly or crusted surface and may become nodular or hyperkeratotic, sometimes with a warty surface. In some cases, the bulk of the lesion may lie below the level of the surrounding skin. Eventually the tumor ulcerates and invades the underlying tissue.

Manifestations of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Diagnosis of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

  • Biopsy

Biopsy is essential.

Differential diagnosis

Differential diagnosis varies based on the lesion's appearance.

Scaling plaques should be differentiated from basal cell carcinoma Basal Cell Carcinoma Basal cell carcinoma is a superficial, slowly growing papule or nodule that derives from certain epidermal cells. Basal cell carcinomas arise from keratinocytes near the basal layer, which are... read more Basal Cell Carcinoma , actinic keratosis Actinic keratoses Chronic affects of sunlight include photoaging, actinic keratoses, and skin cancer. (See also Overview of Effects of Sunlight.) Chronic exposure to sunlight ages the skin (photoaging, dermatoheliosis... read more Actinic keratoses , verruca vulgaris Warts Warts are common, benign, epidermal lesions caused by human papillomavirus infection. They can appear anywhere on the body in a variety of morphologies. Diagnosis is by examination. Warts are... read more Warts , seborrheic keratosis Seborrheic Keratoses Seborrheic keratoses are superficial, often pigmented, epithelial lesions that are usually verrucous but may occur as smooth papules. The cause of seborrheic keratosis is unknown, but genetic... read more Seborrheic Keratoses , psoriasis Psoriasis Psoriasis is an inflammatory disease that manifests most commonly as well-circumscribed, erythematous papules and plaques covered with silvery scales. Multiple factors contribute, including... read more Psoriasis , and nummular dermatitis Nummular Dermatitis Nummular dermatitis is inflammation of the skin characterized by coin-shaped or discoid eczematous lesions. Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment may include topical corticosteroids and phototherapy... read more Nummular Dermatitis (discoid dermatitis).

Treatment of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

  • Usually locally destructive techniques

Treatment of squamous cell carcinoma is similar to that for basal cell carcinoma Treatment Basal cell carcinoma is a superficial, slowly growing papule or nodule that derives from certain epidermal cells. Basal cell carcinomas arise from keratinocytes near the basal layer, which are... read more Treatment and includes curettage and electrodesiccation, surgical excision, cryosurgery, topical chemotherapy (imiquimod or 5-fluorouracil) and photodynamic therapy, or, occasionally, radiation therapy. Treatment and follow-up must be monitored closely because of the greater risk of metastasis compared with a basal cell carcinoma.

Squamous cell carcinoma on the lip or other mucocutaneous junction should be excised; at times, cure is difficult.

Recurrences and large tumors should be treated aggressively with Mohs microscopically controlled surgery, in which tissue borders are progressively excised until specimens are tumor-free (as determined by microscopic examination during surgery), or by a team approach with surgery and radiation therapy. Because tumors with perineural invasion are aggressive, radiation therapy should be considered after surgery.

Metastatic disease is responsive to radiation therapy if metastases can be identified and are isolated. Widespread metastases do not respond well to chemotherapeutic regimens. For inoperable advanced disease or metastatic disease, programmed death receptor 1 (PD-1) inhibitors (eg, cemiplimab, pembrolizumab) are now an option.

Prognosis for Squamous Cell Carcinoma

In general, the prognosis for small lesions removed early and adequately is excellent. Regional and distant metastases of squamous cell carcinomas on sun-exposed skin are uncommon but do occur, particularly with poorly differentiated tumors. Characteristics of more aggressive tumors include

  • Size > 2 cm in diameter

  • Invasion depth of > 2 mm

  • Perineural invasion

  • Location near the ear or vermilion border

Late-stage disease, which may require extensive surgery, is far more likely to metastasize. It spreads initially regionally to surrounding skin and lymph nodes and eventually to nearby organs. Cancers that occur near the ears or the vermilion border, in scars, or that have perineural invasion are more likely to metastasize. The overall 5-year survival rate for metastatic disease is 34% despite therapy.

Prevention of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Because squamous cell carcinoma is associated with ultraviolet (UV) exposure, a number of measures are recommended to limit exposure.

  • Sun avoidance: Seeking shade, minimizing outdoor activities between 10 AM and 4 PM (when sun's rays are strongest), and avoiding sunbathing and the use of tanning beds

  • Use of protective clothing: Long-sleeved shirts, pants, and broad-brimmed hats

  • Use of sunscreen: At least sun protection factor (SPF) 30 with broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection, used as directed (ie, reapplied every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating); should not be used to prolong sun exposure

Key Points

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, because of its high frequency of occurrence and highly variable appearance, should be considered in any nonhealing lesion in a sun-exposed area.

  • Metastases are uncommon but are more likely in cancers involving the lingual or mucosal surfaces; that occur near the ears, the vermilion border, or in scars; or that have perineural invasion.

  • Treatment is usually with locally destructive methods, sometimes also with radiation therapy (eg, for tumors that are large, recurrent, or have perineural invasion).

  • PD-1 inhibitors such as cemiplimab and pembrolizumab may be useful in patients with advanced or metastatic disease.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Aldara, Zyclara
Adrucil, Carac, Efudex, Fluoroplex, Tolak
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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