A skin cancer that usually affects the face but can spread to other parts of the body
- Mainly affects people over the age of 60
- More common in males
- Fair-skinned people are most at risk
- Exposure to sun, use of sunbeds, and working with oils and tars are risk factors
Squamous cell carcinoma is a common type of skin cancer that usually affects areas that have been exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods over many years, but may also occur in other parts of the body, such as the genitals. This type of carcinoma is capable of spreading throughout the body, and for this reason early detection and treatment of the condition are essential.
What are the causes?
Squamous cell carcinoma develops on areas of skin that have been constantly exposed to sunlight over many years. Sometimes, this form of skin cancer may develop from scaly growths known as solar keratoses. The condition is most common in fair-skinned men over the age of 60.
People who work with some industrial tars and oils are known to have a higher than normal risk of squamous cell carcinoma, but these people are normally protected by adequate health and safety measures. The use of sunbeds also increases the risk.
Most squamous cell carcinomas can be prevented by avoiding prolonged exposure to sunlight. If this is not possible, you should take precautions to protect your skin, such as applying sunblock and wearing a hat, when you are outdoors (see Safety in the sun). You should also avoid using sunbeds.
What are the symptoms?
Squamous cell carcinoma begins as an area of thickened, scaly skin. The lesion then develops into:
A hard, painless, gradually enlarging lump that has an irregular edge and is red to reddish brown in colour.
Subsequently, a recurring ulcer that does not heal.
You should check your skin regularly for any unusual changes (see Checking your skin) and consult your doctor promptly if you notice any such changes.
What might be done?
If your doctor suspects squamous cell carcinoma, he or she may arrange for you to have a skin biopsy, in which a small piece of tissue is removed under a local anaesthetic and examined under a microscope for the presence of cancerous cells.
Squamous cell carcinoma can usually be treated surgically if the lesions are detected at an early stage. Sometimes, radiotherapy is used as an alter-native to surgery. If you have several large lesions or if the cancer has spread into underlying tissues, chemotherapy may also be necessary.
What is the prognosis?
If the condition is detected early, about 9 in 10 people with squamous cell carcinoma are treated successfully. Lesions on the face respond particularly well to treatment. If the disease is detected late, the success of the treatment depends on how far the cancer has spread. Some lesions may recur, particularly larger ones, and your doctor will advise you to have regular checkups.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.
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