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Home > Skin Cancers > Squamous Cell

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous Cell Carcinoma: 16% of skin cases - The second most common form of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma is a tumor found in the outer layer of skin. Like basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas tend to occur on areas of chronic sun exposure. Unlike basal cell carcinomas, they have the potential to spread or metastasize and therefore need to be aggressively treated, especially if they have recurred after previous treatment and especially in certain locations (eyelids, lips, ears, genitalia). Small sandpaper like growths called solar or actinic keratoses occur in sun-exposed patients, starting as early as their 20s, especially those with fair complexions and a history of frequent sun exposure. These actinic keratoses should also be treated to prevent their potential transition into a squamous cell carcinoma.

Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common skin cancer after basal cell carcinoma, afflicts more than 200,000 Americans each year. It arises from the epidermis and resembles the squamous cells that comprise most of the upper layers of skin. Squamous cell cancers may occur on all areas of the body including the mucous membranes, but are most common in areas exposed to the sun.

Although squamous cell carcinomas usually remain confined to the epidermis for some time, they eventually penetrate the underlying tissues if not treated. In a small percentage of cases, they spread (metastasize) to distant tissues and organs. When this happens, they can be fatal. Squamous cell carcinomas that metastasize most often arise on sites of chronic inflammatory skin conditions or on the mucous membranes or lips.

What Causes It

Chronic exposure to sunlight causes most cases of squamous cell carcinoma. That is why tumors appear most frequently on sun-exposed parts of the body: the face, neck, bald scalp, hands, shoulders, arms, and back. The rim of the ear and the lower lip are especially vulnerable to the development of these cancers.

Squamous cell carcinomas may also occur where skin has suffered certain kinds of injury: burns, scars, long-standing sores, sites previously exposed to X-rays or certain chemicals (such as arsenic and petroleum by-products). In addition, chronic skin inflammation or medical conditions that suppress the immune system over an extended period of time may encourage development of squamous cell carcinoma.

Occasionally, squamous cell carcinoma arises spontaneously on what appears to be normal, healthy, undamaged skin. Some researchers believe that a tendency to develop this cancer may be inherited.  

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Robert J Weiss, MD PC
The Skin Wizard