What is squamous cell carcinoma?
Learn about this dangerous type of skin cancer that's one of the most common in Australia.
Alexander Pan avatar
Written by Alexander Pan
Updated over a week ago

Skin cancer occurs when skin cells grow abnormally, generally due to overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. There are three major types of skin cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

In this article, we'll be focusing on squamous cell carcinoma, what it is, the signs and symptoms of the cancer, risk factors of getting it, treatment options, and ways to prevent getting it.

Just remember that if you need support or someone to talk to, our Sonder support team is available 24/7 to chat whenever you need it.

What is squamous cell carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma - or SCC - is the second most common type of skin cancer, totalling about 33 per cent of non-melanoma skin cancer cases. Non-melanoma skin cancers (now called keratinocyte cancers) are the most common cancers in Australia and are generally not life-threatening.

SCC accounts for about 30% of non-melanoma skin cancers. It begins in the upper layer of the epidermis and usually appears where the skin has had the most exposure to the sun (head, neck, hands, forearms and lower legs). While SCC may not be as dangerous as a melanoma, it can spread to other parts of the body if not treated in a timely manner and can result in death if the SCC is particularly aggressive.

Signs of squamous cell carcinoma

The first sign of an SCC is a thickened, red, scaly spot that doesn't heal. SCC generally grows quickly over weeks or months and as mentioned before usually appears where the skin has had the most exposure to the sun.

Some other visual and physical signs of an SCC include:

  • Appearing like a thickened red, scaly spot

  • Looking like a rapidly growing lump

  • Looking like a sore that has not healed

  • Tender to touch.

What causes squamous cell carcinoma?

Almost all skin cancers are caused by overexposure to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources. When unprotected skin is exposed to UV radiation, the structure of the cells starts changing. Too much UV radiation causes the skin to be permanently damaged and will only worsen with each exposure.

Risk of getting squamous cell carcinoma

Anyone can get skin cancer but it is more common as you get older. The risk of melanoma is increased for those who have:

  • Unprotected sun exposure

  • A history of tanning and sunburn, especially during childhood and adolescence

  • Lots of moles

  • Atypical moles

  • Already had a skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma

  • Fair skin, red hair, blue eyes or skin that burns easily

  • A family history of skin cancer, especially if they developed it at a young age (i.e. less than 40)

  • A weakened immune system

  • Certain genetic variations that can be inherited in families.

Treatment for squamous cell carcinoma

It is usually possible to completely remove an SCC if treated early enough. The doctor will recommend the best course of treatment depending on the SCC's size, location and depth, as well as the patient's age and overall health. For SCCs that are in situ (i.e have not spread), there are a number of effective treatments available:

  • Excisional surgery

  • Mohs surgery

  • Cryosurgery

  • Curettage and electrodesiccation (electrosurgery)

  • Laser surgery

  • Radiation therapy

  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

  • Topical medications.

Advanced SCCs are more difficult to treat and can become dangerous as it can spread to local lymph nodes, distant tissues, and organs, so it's very important to get treatment as soon as possible once diagnosed.

Prevention of getting squamous cell carcinoma

Skin cancer is preventable so it's important to stay safe and to know your skin so you notice any changes and can react quickly. Make sun protection a top priority and make sure you:

  • Wear sun-protective clothing that covers your shoulders, neck, arms, legs and body.

  • Wear a hat that shades your face, neck, and ears.

  • Wear wrap-around sunglasses.

  • Use SPF 50+ or higher sunscreen that's broad-spectrum and water-resistant.

  • Seek shade whenever possible, especially during the hottest part of the day.

  • Get regular skin cancer checks

If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Image credit: BruceBlaus at Wikimedia Commons

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.

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