What is squamous cell carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma (a nonmelanoma skin cancer) is the second most common type of skin cancer diagnosed in the United States. While squamous cell carcinoma is usually not considered life-threatening, it can become dangerous if left untreated.

Squamous cells are found in the tissue that forms the skin’s surface, called the epidermis, and the cells are thin, flat and scaly (like fish scales).

Squamous cell carcinoma occurs when the cells become malignant (cancerous). It often appears as flat, scaly, reddish or brownish patches, and it usually forms on sun-exposed skin like the head (especially the face/nose), neck and hands.

A slow-growing skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma rarely metastasizes (spreads) to other parts of the body, and if it’s detected early and treated, patients usually have excellent treatment outcomes and can often be cured.

The skin cancer specialists at the Multidisciplinary Skin Cancer Clinic at Miami Cancer Institute combine world-recognized medical expertise, innovation and compassionate care to detect and treat your specific cancer, creating precise, personalized treatment plans that incorporate groundbreaking discoveries, collaborations with other world-renowned cancer researchers, and the best individualized treatment just for you.

What are the risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma?

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease. Having risk factors, however, does not necessarily mean you will get cancer, so it’s important to know your personal risk factors and discuss any concerns with your doctor.

The skin is the largest organ of the body, and squamous cell carcinoma risk factors can be either environmental and/or genetic. For example, those who have had long-term exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or from a tanning bed are at higher risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma. 

Other risk factors include:

  • Fair skin
  • Blonde or red hair
  • Blue, green or light-colored eyes 
  • Having actinic keratosis
  • Past treatment with radiation
  • Having a weakened immune system

While people with light skin, hair and eyes have a higher risk for sun-related skin cancers, there are also risk factors for those of HispanicAfrican-American and other descents. 

Preventing or reducing your risk for squamous cell carcinoma often involves changing lifestyle behaviors and certain environmental exposures. 

This includes:

  • Using sunscreen year-round, SPF 30 or higher with both UVA and UVB protection – regardless of how light or dark your skin is naturally
  • Avoiding sun exposure midday when the sun’s rays are strongest (usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.)
  • Wearing protective clothing that covers your neck, head and eyes
  • Avoiding indoor tanning
  • Taking careful precautions to limit occupational exposure to toxic substances
  • Examining your skin, head to toe, every month
  • As with any type of cancer prevention, the skin cancer specialists at Miami Cancer Institute recommend eating a healthful diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Our experts also recommend knowing and understanding your personal risk factors so that you can take appropriate steps to prevent or reduce your risk for squamous cell carcinoma.

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