The only way to diagnose any type of skin cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), is with a skin biopsy. Your dermatologist can perform this procedure during an office visit.
A skin biopsy should not cause anxiety. To perform a skin biopsy, your dermatologist will remove the entire growth or part of it. Your dermatologist may send this to a laboratory or look at it under a microscope. The findings will be communicated in a biopsy report.
If the biopsy report states that you have SCC, your dermatologist will consider many factors to determine which treatment will be best.
The type of treatment a patient receives depends on how deep the cancer has grown and whether it has spread. SCC is often treated with:
Excision: This is a surgical procedure that your dermatologist often can perform during an office visit. It involves numbing the area to be treated and cutting out any remaining tumor plus some normal-looking skin around the tumor.
Like the skin biopsy, this removed skin is examined under the microscope. This may be done at a laboratory or by your dermatologist. The doctor who looks at the removed skin needs to see whether the normal-looking skin is free of cancer cells. If not, more skin will need to be removed. This is a common way to treat SCC.
Mohs surgery: Named for the doctor who developed this surgery, Mohs (pronounced "moes") is a specialized surgery used to remove some skin cancers. It offers the highest cure rate for difficult-to-treat squamous cell cancers. Your dermatologist will tell you if Mohs surgery is right for you.
If Mohs surgery is recommended, this is what you can expect. The surgeon will cut out the tumor plus a very small amount of normal-looking skin surrounding the tumor. While the patient waits, the Mohs surgeon uses a microscope to look at what was removed. The surgeon is looking for cancer cells.
If necessary, the Mohs surgeon will continue to remove a very small amount of skin and look at it under the microscope. This continues until the surgeon no longer sees cancer cells.
Radiation: This treatment is usually reserved for SCCs that cannot be cut out, or when cutting may not be the best choice. A patient may need 15 to 30 radiation treatments.
When the SCC is caught early, it may be treated by:
Curettage and electrodessication: This treatment consists of two steps. First, your dermatologist scrapes away the tumor. Then electricity is used to destroy any remaining cancer cells. These two steps are repeated.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT): This treatment uses light to remove some very early skin cancers. PDT is a two-step process. First, a chemical is applied to the skin. The chemical remains on the skin for some time so that it can be absorbed. Then the skin is exposed to a special light to kill the cancer cells.
Laser treatment: Lasers can be used to remove an SCC that sits on the surface of the skin. This treatment is only recommended for early SCCs.
Chemotherapy cream: Cream that contains a chemotherapy drug, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), can be used to treat SCC in the earliest stage.
With treatment, most SCCs are cured. Early treatment is recommended. When allowed to grow, this skin cancer can grow deep, destroying tissue and even bone. In some cases, SCC spreads to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. This can cause serious health problems.
Learn more about squamous cell carcinoma
Grossman D, Leffell DJ. “Squamous cell carcinoma.” In: Wolff K et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology in General Medicine, 7th edition. USA. McGraw Hill Medical; 2008, p. 1028-36.
Habif TP, Campbell JL, Chapman JGH et al. “Squamous cell carcinoma,” In: Dermatology DDxDeck. China; 2006.
Leibovitch I, Huilgol SC, Selva D et al. “Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma treated with Mohs micrographic surgery in Australia I. Experience over 10 years.” J Am Acad Dermatol 2005;53:253-60.