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Doctor checking patient's back for squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma stages represent the size of a tumor and how far it has spread. However, squamous cell carcinoma is usually very slow to metastasize; most cases are diagnosed while the cancer is still confined to the upper layer of the skin. As a result, these tumors may not be staged if it is clear that the cancer has not invaded nearby tissues at the time of diagnosis.

Factors considered when staging squamous cell carcinoma

If a squamous cell carcinoma does require staging, oncologists will evaluate a number of factors, including:

  • The size of the tumor
  • Whether the tumor has grown into the dermis or subcutis levels of the skin
  • Whether the cancer has invaded the bones
  • Where on the body the tumor developed (specifically, whether it developed on an ear or lip, making it a high-risk lesion)
  • How the cells appear when viewed under a microscope
  • Whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or distant organs

What are the stages of squamous cell carcinoma?

After evaluating these factors, the oncologist will assign one of the following squamous cell carcinoma stages to the tumor:

  • Stage 0 – Cancer is only present on the epidermis (the top layer of the skin).
  • Stage 1 – Cancer has grown deep into the skin, but has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or healthy tissues.
  • Stage 2 – Cancer has grown deep into the skin and displays one or more high-risk features (such as metastasis to nerves or lower skin layers), but has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or healthy tissues.
  • Stage 3 – Cancer has grown into lymph nodes, but has not spread to any organs other than the skin.
  • Stage 4 – Cancer has spread to one or more distant organs, such as the lungs, liver, brain or distant parts of the skin.

How does staging affect treatment?

These stages can influence the specific types of treatment that are recommended for a patient. For instance, topical chemotherapy might be an option for small, low-risk lesions, while more extensive surgery might be necessary for later-stage cancers. By choosing the least aggressive treatment that is effective for a specific stage of cancer, an oncologist can individualize a patient’s treatment plan while ensuring the best possible quality of life.

graphic showing depth of squamous cell carcinoma

How to tell if squamous cell carcinoma has spread

Many doctors will order a PET or CT scan once a squamous cell carcinoma diagnosis has been reached to ensure the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body and is contained within the layers of the skin. Your doctor may also test your lymph nodes near the tumor site.

What is the survival rate for squamous cell carcinoma?

Upon being diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma or any other type of cancer, patients often inquire about the survival rate. The squamous cell carcinoma survival rate is very high—if the cancer is diagnosed while still in its early stages, the five-year survival rate is approximately 99%. While survival rates generally decrease the further a malignancy progresses, squamous cell carcinoma can still be effectively treated with surgery and radiation even if it’s already spread to nearby lymph nodes.

It must be noted that, as with any other type of cancer, squamous cell carcinoma survival rates cannot be used to predict an individual’s specific outcome. Survival rates are based on a large and diverse sampling of people, and each person’s individual prognosis will depend on factors such as:

  • Where their tumor is located (tumors that develop on the scalp, face, fingers or toes or in an open wound are more likely to spread)
  • The size of their tumor
  • How deeply their tumor has grown into their skin
  • Whether their cancer is new or recurring
  • The strength of their immune system
  • The type of treatments they’ve already undergone

What’s more, survival rate statistics likely don’t take into account more recent breakthroughs in treatment. Research on squamous cell carcinoma and other malignancies is always ongoing, and as new information is discovered, survival rates are likely to increase.

How to reduce the chances of recurrence

Despite the high survival rate for squamous cell carcinoma, recurrence is always a possibility. So, even when someone has been effectively treated for squamous cell carcinoma, they’ll need to continue monitoring their condition for the rest of their life. To minimize the chances of a recurrence and ensure that any recurrences are detected as early as possible, patients should:

  • Perform monthly self-examinations and report any changes to their physician
  • Attend a professional skin cancer examination at least once per year
  • Avoid ultraviolet (UV) exposure by remaining in the shade, wearing a hat and sunglasses and applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen offering both UVA and UVB protection when outdoors
  • Never use indoor tanning beds

The team to choose for diagnosis, staging and treatment

Diagnostic services, staging services and a comprehensive range of treatments are all available at Moffitt Cancer Center. When you turn to Moffitt for these services, you’ll be a top priority of a cancer center that consistently delivers nationally ranked care in new and transformative ways. Our Cutaneous Oncology Program includes dermatologists, dermatopathologists, medical oncologists, plastic surgeons, radiation oncologists, radiologists, surgical oncologists and supportive care providers, all of whom work together to provide patients with a highly individualized treatment experience.

To learn more about squamous cell carcinoma stages and the treatment options for each, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. At Moffitt, we understand how important it is to begin planning for personalized treatment as quickly as possible. That’s why we’ve made a point to connect each new patient with a cancer expert within just one day, which is faster than any other cancer hospital in the nation. We look forward to speaking with you and providing you with the information you need to move forward with any necessary treatments.