Squamous cell cancer (SCC), also known as squamous cell carcinoma, is the second most common form of skin cancer that we treat at Denver Dermatology Center.

SCCs are abnormal skin cells that can appear as red or scaly patches of skin, open sores that do not heal, or abnormal wart-like growths that may crust or bleed. SCCs can occur on all parts of the body but are most often found on areas that have had regular exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) from the sun or tanning beds. Squamous cell cancer can be fatal, but is almost always curable when diagnosed and treated early.

FAQs about Squamous Cell Carcinoma

If I want to check my body for possible SCCs, what should I look for?

Most squamous cell cancers are found on the scalp, face, lips, ears, arms, hands, or legs. Because most people do not regularly cover these areas when they are outdoors, the skin receives regular exposure to the sun, becoming vulnerable to the effects of photodamage: cosmetic imperfections, pre-cancerous lesions, and skin cancer.

Squamous cell cancers are often scaly, red, rough patches that bleed easily. Some resemble warts or sores that do not heal. When examining your own skin for potential squamous cell carcinoma, remember that any new growths, significant changes in existing lesions, or lesions that do not seem to heal warrant an exam by a dermatologist with specialized training and experience to distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous lesions. For diagnosis, our team will visually inspect the suspicious area, and, if needed, perform a biopsy.

What causes squamous cell carcinoma?

Most squamous cell cancers are caused by cumulative exposure to sunlight, although shorter periods of intense UV exposure, including tanning bed use, can also cause this type of skin cancer.

In some people, a chronic unresolved skin infection or an area of scarring can lead to squamous cell cancer, as can a compromised immune system. In rare cases, SCC can form on healthy skin, likely due to a genetic predisposition to develop this type of skin cancer.

Are some people more likely to develop squamous cell cancer?

Yes, SCC is more common in people over 40 who have fair skin, light hair or eyes, and a history of regular sun exposure. However, the number of people under 50 who are diagnosed with squamous cell cancer each year is increasing, and men are more likely than women to develop these lesions. SCCs are also more common in individuals with a weakened immune system.

What are the most common squamous cell carcinoma treatments?

When detected early, squamous cell cancer can be removed quite successfully with minimal pain and scarring, as most lesions are superficial and respond well to treatment. When detected late, the treatment choices narrow because the cancer has often spread, penetrating underlying tissues and possibly metastasizing, affecting other areas of the body. For squamous cell cancer treatment, Denver Dermatology Center offers several outpatient treatment options, and the choice of procedure depends on the size, location, and depth of the lesion, as well as the patient’s age and general health.

Small actinic keratoses, precancerous lesions that can evolve into squamous cell carcinoma, can be effectively treated with cryotherapy. During this procedure, liquid nitrogen is applied to each lesion, causing it to crust, scab, and eventually heal over with new skin. Cryotherapy is performed quickly, with minimal pain, as an in-office procedure. The cure rate is good for small, superficial actinic keratoses. To treat actinic keratoses and prevent the development of SCCs, we sometimes recommend Intense Pulsed Light Photodynamic Therapy (IPL-PDT) or BLU-U-PDT. These procedures involve applying a topical agent to the affected area for 90 to 120 minutes. The skin is then treated with IPL and/or natural light sources to destroy the SCC cells.

The most common removal method for treating SCCs is surgical excision. The tissue is sent to the lab to ensure that all of the cancer cells have been removed. If the squamous cell carcinoma is small and superficial, it is sometimes possible to treat it with topical prescription creams.

Only a physician experienced with skin cancer diagnosis and treatment should select the appropriate treatment modality for squamous cell carcinoma.

How can I reduce my risk of developing squamous cell cancer?

You can greatly reduce your risk of developing SCC by protecting your skin: apply high-SPF sunscreen and reapply it regularly, cover exposed areas with clothing, gloves, or hats, and avoid sun exposure when the sun’s rays are strongest, from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. In addition, you should perform monthly self-exams of your skin.