Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson, we'll go over what cancer is in general and then look at the specifics of squamous cell carcinoma. We'll cover the causes, symptoms and treatment.

What is Cancer?

Imagine a concert. There's only a certain number of tickets available, so you probably got your ticket in advance. Even though it is frustrating when the tickets sell out, it's for a good reason. If there are too many people in the venue, it gets too crowded. Imagine if a popular concert had no limits. People would rush in, they would call their friends, and the crowd would multiply. Soon there would be no room for the artist or their staff. The entire show would fall apart.

Although squamous cell carcinoma is a mouthful, it's actually pretty similar to our concert scenario. Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of cancer. With cancer, the cells inside our bodies divide too fast, multiplying out of control. They get sloppy and make mistakes while dividing, creating new cells with even more problems and less control. Soon, these problematic cells are crowding out the healthy cells, which no longer have the resources to do their job. The organ in which the cancer has developed starts to fail, and this can eventually cause death without treatment. Let's look at the details about squamous cell carcinoma.

cancer progression

What is Squamous Cell Carcinoma?

Squamous cells are cells that line cavities in your body. All organs have an epithelium, or lining, and this is where squamous cells are found. All squamous cells can accumulate mutations that can turn healthy cells into cancer cells. However, one of the most common squamous cell carcinomas is that of the skin. Squamous cells make up the epidermis of your skin, which exists above the fat, blood vessels and hair follicles also found in skin.

Types of Squamous Cells
epithelial cells

All cancers are caused by carcinogens, or chemicals that can cause changes in DNA. Skin squamous cells have especially high exposure to carcinogens, such as ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Since your skin is exposed to the sun nearly every day, it takes a lot of hits. Tanning can also increase the risk of squamous cell carcinoma since your skin is exposed to heavy UV light in a tanning bed.

Although relaxing, excessive time in the sun can lead to squamous cell carcinoma.
sun tanning


Symptoms usually appear on the skin at first. Dark red or scaly patches of skin that don't go away may indicate squamous cell carcinoma. Sometimes the patches can resemble a wart. Usually the skin is rough, and it may bleed if scratched or ruptured. These patches typically appear on areas that are frequently exposed to UV rays, such as the face, hands, neck and back. However, some people have DNA that predisposes them to this disease, and damaged cells can even appear inside of the mouth.

If left untreated, the cancer cells continue to grow and invade other parts of the body during metastasis. Cancer cells invade the lower areas of the dermis, accessing blood vessels and lymphatic tissue that unknowingly transports the cancer cells to other parts of the body. There, the cancer cells take root and can crowd out other important organs like the lungs and brain.

Metastasis of Cancer Cells


Luckily, there are preventions and treatment for squamous cell carcinoma. First, let's talk about prevention. The easiest way to prevent squamous cell carcinoma is to limit your exposure to UV radiation. This can mean staying out of the sun or covering exposed skin with clothing. If you're a sun lover, wearing SPF 30 or higher sunscreen will help reduce your risk. Be sure to reapply every two hours to keep protecting your skin.

Sunscreen can help prevent squamous cell carcinoma.

For those who have already developed squamous cell carcinoma, there are a variety of treatments. Usually doctors will take a small biopsy, or section, of the skin to test for cancer. They'll look at the structure of the cells and run other tests to determine if the cells are cancerous and then choose a treatment. There are three main types of treatment: surgery, drugs and radiation therapy.

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