Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a type of skin cancer. It starts in the keratinocyte cells in the outer layer of the skin (epidermis). It's the second most common type of skin cancer in the UK.

Most people with a squamous cell carcinoma can be completely cured with simple treatment.

Squamous cell carcinomas are more likely to start in areas that have been exposed to the sun. It can start as Bowen's disease.

Usually, squamous cell carcinomas are slow-growing and only spread to other parts of the body if they are left untreated for a long time. Occasionally though, they can behave more aggressively and spread at a relatively early stage.

If squamous cell carcinomas do spread, it’s likely to be to other layers of the skin.

At The Christie, the head and neck and skin team in clinical oncology treat types of skin cancer.

Symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous are mainly found on the face, neck, bald scalps, arms, backs of hands and lower legs.

Squamous cell cancers may:

  • look scaly
  • have a hard, crusty cap
  • make the skin raised in the area of the cancer
  • feel tender to touch
  • bleed sometimes.

People at risk of squamous cell carcinoma

There are several groups of people who are more likely to develop a squamous cell carcinoma. They include:

  • people who are more susceptible to sunburn
  • people who have lived in countries near the equator
  • outdoor workers, such as builders or farmers
  • older people who have had a lifetime of frequent sun exposure
  • immunosuppressed individuals (people with reduced immune systems) due to medical treatment or due to diseases which affect the immune system
  • patients who have had an organ transplant and treatment required to suppress their immune system to prevent organ rejection
  • people with skin conditions such as albinism and xeroderma pigmentosum.

Treatment for squamous cell carcinoma

Surgery is usually the recommended treatment. This involves removing the lesion with a margin of normal skin around it, usually using local anesthetic. The skin is then closed with some stitches or sometimes a skin graft is needed.

Radiotherapy can also be used to treat SCC. This involves shining a beam of X-rays into the skin. Usually several sessions are required. For advanced SCC a combination of treatments may be used. If it has spread to other parts of the body, then surgery, radiotherapy and/or systemic anti-cancer treatment may be used.

How to prevent squamous cell carcinoma

Protect your skin from ultraviolet radiation in strong sunlight to help make it less likely that you develop a squamous cell carcinoma

  • avoiding exposure to the sun,
  • covering up with loose fitting but closely woven clothes,
  • wearing a wide brimmed hat and protective sunglasses,
  • using high SPF sunscreen (SPF30 or more). Use a sunscreen that protects against UVB and a 4 or 5 star UVA protection rating. Apply plenty of sun cream 15 - 30 minutes before going out in the sun. Re-apply every 2 hours and straight after swimming and towel drying,
  • avoiding tanning under sunlamps.

Last updated: August 2022