Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer in Canada, after basal cell skin cancer.

Treatment for squamous cell carcinoma must not be ignored because the larger these tumours grow, the more damage is done to surrounding tissue. This can lead to disfigurement and, potentially, more extensive medical attention. A small percentage may spread (metastasize) to distant tissues, organs and/or local lymph glands, with potentially fatal results.

Squamous cell carcinoma can develop from a precancerous growth or “sunspot” called an actinic keratosis. These actinic keratoses are rough, scaly raised growths ranging in colour from brown to red. They’re found on sun-exposed parts of the body and can often be felt before they become visible. Up to one in 10 can become squamous cell carcinomas, sometimes within two years.

Squamous cell skin cancers appear as thickened, red scaly bumps or wartlike growths. They may also look like an open sore or crusted skin. This type of skin cancer may grow quickly over a few weeks.

Squamous cell carcinoma can occur on any part of the body but is most common on areas exposed to the sun, such as head, face, neck, shoulders and extremities (i.e. arms, legs, backs of hands). Lesions that develop on the rim of the ear and the lip are often more aggressive, and prone to spreading to nearby lymph glands.

People with fair skin or a history of exposure to ultraviolet radiation, either from the sun or from tanning beds, and those who have signs of chronic sun damage are at greatest risk.

In addition, individuals who have had organ transplants (e.g. kidney, liver, heart) have significantly increased risk of developing this malignancy. In these patients, squamous cell carcinoma often acts more aggressively.

There is growing recognition that indoor tanning through the use of tanning beds can increase the risk for developing many forms of skin cancer — including squamous cell carcinoma.

Chronic exposure to ultraviolet radiation, from the sun or from tanning beds, is the leading cause of squamous cell carcinoma. This exposure causes certain cells in the skin’s outer layer to grow out of control and become a tumour. Squamous cell carcinoma can also develop where the skin has been damaged by x-rays, ulcers, burns and on persistent chronic wounds and old scars. It is not contagious.

The best way to avoid developing squamous cell carcinoma is to take steps to avoid unnecessary exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

  • Stay in the shade, especially between 10 am and 4 pm.
  • Avoid tanning or burning.
  • Don’t use tanning beds.
  • Wear protective clothing, including a broad-rimmed hat and sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays.
  • Use a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Examine your skin regularly, and report any changes to your doctor.

When detected early and treated promptly, squamous cell carcinoma is almost always curable and causes minimal damage. Treatment options depend on your age and medical condition, as well as the nature of the tumour. It usually involves removing affected tissue surgically, but other treatments such as radiation therapyare used in certain circumstances.

For a comprehensive overview of treatment options, contact your dermatologist.

If left untreated, squamous cell carcinoma can spread, causing serious health problems. It can be fatal.