Basal Cell vs. Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has a master's degree in cancer biology and has taught high school and college biology.

This lesson is going to explain basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. We will describe some of the similarities and differences that exist between the two as well.


You have heard people talking about cancer for years now. Perhaps you know what cancer is in general, but you are still left with many questions. Why are some cancers referred to as a carcinoma? Carcinoma is a term used for cancers that occur in the epithelial tissue, which makes up the skin. This is why you have heard skin cancer referred to as a carcinoma. This tissue also comprises the lining of the organs inside the body.

There are two types of carcinomas that you hear of quite frequently: squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cells are located throughout the body
Diagram of squamous cells

Let's look at squamous cell carcinoma first. We already know that it is a cancer in the epithelial tissue. Squamous cells make up the outermost layer of the epidermis, or outer layer of the skin, the tubes in the digestive and respiratory tracts, and the linings of the kidneys, bladder and uterus.

There are different types of this cancer such as squamous cell skin cancer, squamous cell lung cancer, and squamous cell oral carcinoma. All of these can be aggressive and fatal, depending on which organs are involved.

Some common symptoms of squamous cell carcinoma are open sores that don't heal or are reoccurring, scaly patches of skin, and wart-like growths. A biopsy, or sample of tissue viewed under the microscope, is required to diagnose the carcinoma.

Basal Cell Carcinoma

The epidermis contains squamous and basal cells
Diagram showing layers of the epidermis

Basal cell carcinoma is another type of cancer that occurs in the epithelial tissues. These cells make up the inner, or bottom, layer of the epidermis. This is easy to remember, since 'basal' sounds similar to 'basement', the bottom floor of a building. It is the most common type of skin cancer.

Some of the signs and symptoms associated with basal cell carcinoma are pearl-like reddish bumps, itchy, reddish patches, open sores that won't heal and flat, firm areas on the skin that are pale or yellow in color. Basal cell carcinoma is also diagnosed through a biopsy.

Basal vs. Squamous Cell Carcinoma

How are these two carcinomas similar and different? They are similar in that they can both be located on the skin and rarely spread to other organs. Both carcinomas also tend to develop on areas of the body that receive more sun exposure. The treatments options are the same for both skin cancers and involves removing the cancerous area.

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