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There are several types of squamous cell carcinoma. Some are more likely to spread than others, but in general, most share similar characteristics. The primary difference between each subtype is histological (related to the unique characteristics of the cancerous cells).

To determine which type of squamous cell carcinoma a patient has, a pathologist will examine a tissue sample underneath a microscope. By identifying the type of cells that are present in a lesion, an oncologist can tailor a patient’s treatment plan to achieve the best possible outcome and quality of life.

The primary types of squamous cell carcinoma

The primary types of squamous cell carcinoma are:

Dermatologist examining the skin of a female patient.

What causes squamous cell carcinoma?

As with most skin cancers, sun exposure is the most common cause of squamous cell carcinoma. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is emitted by the sun as well as tanning beds, can damage the DNA on the outer layer of the skin. This can disrupt the skin’s typical cell-shedding process—normally, as new skin cells develop, they push the older cells to the uppermost layer of the skin, effectively causing them to shed. UV exposure can cause this process to break down, allowing cells to start growing uncontrollably and forming into cancerous lesions.

However, squamous cell carcinoma can also show up on areas of the body not typically exposed to the sun, such as the buttocks, genitals and soles of the feet. As such, researchers are still discovering other causes that may be linked to this type of skin cancer, such as immune system deficiencies or genetic predispositions. 

How fast does squamous cell carcinoma spread?

Squamous cell carcinoma is a slow-growing type of cancer that rarely spreads to other areas of the body (known as metastasizing). Most cases are diagnosed in the early stages, before the cancer has spread beyond the upper layer of skin. Squamous cell carcinoma is classified into one of five stages:

  • Stage 0 – Cancerous cells have developed in the epidermis (the top layer of skin), but have not progressed beyond that.
  • Stage 1 – Cancerous cells have penetrated deeper into the skin, but healthy tissues and lymph nodes are not affected.
  • Stage 2 – Cancerous cells have penetrated deeper into the skin and display at least one high-risk feature, such as metastasizing to the lower skin layers.
  • Stage 3 – Cancerous cells have spread to nearby lymph nodes, but healthy tissues and organs are not affected.
  • Stage 4 – Cancerous cells have spread to at least one distant organ, such as the brains, lungs or another area of the skin.

How is squamous cell carcinoma treated?

There is a wide range of treatments available for squamous cell carcinoma. In some instances, the cancerous cells can be completely removed during a biopsy. During this procedure, the growth will be shaved off or punched out using a specialized tool. Typically, no further treatment is needed. For others, specifically those with more extensive carcinomas that may have grown deeper into the skin or into nearby tissues, surgery, radiation therapy, topical chemotherapy and/or photodynamic therapy may be recommended to remove the cancerous lesion and destroy any lingering cancer cells. Each patient’s treatment journey is unique and depends on many factors, such as the stage and type of cancer, the patient’s overall health and other considerations.

Moffitt Cancer Center’s approach to squamous cell carcinoma treatment

At Moffitt Cancer Center, we diagnose and treat a complete range of skin cancers, including the unique variants of squamous cell carcinoma. Screening, staging and long-term follow-up services are also available as part of our commitment to providing comprehensive care.

Because the surgeons, radiation therapists, dermatologists and dermatopathologists within our Cutaneous Oncology Program work exclusively with skin cancer patients, they are uniquely qualified to determine which treatments offer the most promise for each patient’s specific diagnosis. Our treatment plans are customized in a number of different ways, with extensive consideration given to not only outcomes but also quality of life.

If you’ve been diagnosed with—or are concerned that you are showing signs of - one of the different types of squamous cell carcinoma, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. Florida’s top cancer hospital is changing the model, and we deliver rapid cancer expertise to new patients. Every day counts after a cancer diagnosis, and Moffitt Cancer Center is here to support you with compassionate care every step of the way.