What Is Squamous Cell Cancer?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Squamous cell cancer is cancer that develops from squamous cells, which make up the tissue on our skin, in the respiratory tracts, and in certain portions of the digestive system. They also line other organs such as the bladder, kidneys, and male and female reproductive tracts.

When cancer develops in this type of cell, it is called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), or squamous cell cancer. 

Nurse talking, offering emotional support to a hospital patient

FG Trade / Getty Images

Types of Squamous Cell Carcinoma

SCC can develop in multiple areas, including:

  • Head and neck
  • Skin
  • Esophagus
  • Lungs
  • Male and female genitals

Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma (HNSCC)

Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) develops in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, and throat.

HNSCC is classified by its location:

  • Oral cavity: When it occurs in the mouth
  • Oropharynx: When it occurs in the middle part of the throat near the mouth
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses: When it occurs in the space behind the nose
  • Nasopharynx: When it occurs in the upper part of the throat near the nasal cavity
  • Larynx: When it occurs in the voicebox
  • Hypopharynx: When it occurs in the lower part of the throat near the larynx

Skin Squamous Cell Carcinoma

SCC of the skin typically develops on sun-exposed areas, such as the:

  • Face
  • Arms
  • Hands

Esophagus Squamous Cell Carcinoma

SCC is one of the types of cancer that can develop in the esophagus, the tube that moves food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach.

SCC in the esophagus is typically in the upper to the middle part of the esophagus.

Lung Squamous Cell Carcinoma

SCC of the lung is often found in the area in the center of the chest, close to the bronchus, the large airway that brings air into the lungs.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Reproductive Organs

SCC can affect both the vagina and the penis:

  • Cancer may develop in the vagina, usually close to the cervix, and is generally a slow-growing cancer.
  • Cancer may develop anywhere on the penis. It’s most likely to develop in the area of the foreskin.

Symptoms

The symptoms experienced with SCC are different depending upon where the cancer is located.

Symptoms of Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma (HNSCC)

Depending on the location, HNSCC can cause:

  • Abnormal patches or open sores (ulcers) in the mouth and throat
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth
  • Sinus congestion that does not clear
  • Sore throat
  • Earache
  • Pain when swallowing, or difficulty swallowing
  • A hoarse voice
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Enlarged lymph nodes

Symptoms of Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Skin

Symptoms of SCC of the skin may include:

  • Scaly, rough patches
  • Non-healing sores (ulcers)
  • Patches with irregular borders
  • Brown spots
  • Wart-like growths on the skin

Symptoms of Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Esophagus

Symptoms of SCC of the esophagus may include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Chest pain
  • Cough
  • Heartburn
  • Hoarse voice
  • Weight loss

Symptoms of Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Lung

Symptoms of SCC of the lung may include:

  • Persistent cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue

Symptoms of Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Reproductive Organs

SCC of the vagina may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge
  • Pain with urination
  • Pain in the pelvis
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Persistent low back pain

SCC of the penis may have symptoms of:

  • A sore on the penis
  • Skin thickening
  • Pain in the penis
  • Swelling or bumps under the skin of the penis
  • Penile discharge or bleeding

Causes 

There is no one specific known cause for cancer, as cancer develops due to abnormal DNA in a cell. However, some known risk factors may lead to the development of cancer. These include:

  • Tobacco use
  • Being overweight
  • Alcohol use
  • UV radiation from the sun
  • Radon exposure
  • HPV virus

Can a Virus Cause Cancer?

Both DNA and RNA viruses have been shown to be capable of causing cancer in humans. This includes:

Diagnosis

Cancer is often diagnosed while looking for the cause of a person’s symptoms. Imaging, such as X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or PET scan, may be done. When abnormal areas are found on imaging, a biopsy is then ordered.

During a biopsy, tissue is taken from the abnormal area and sent to a laboratory for testing. The testing will determine if the tissue is cancerous.

Treatment

There are many ways to treat SCC, and the treatment is chosen based on where the cancer is located. Treatment may consist of:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Combination of the above

Prognosis

Some people who are diagnosed with SCC will be able to be cured of their disease, while some will not be. The average 5-year survival rates below are offered as information but should not be used as a prognosis, as survival rates vary based on many factors.

Type of SCC  Average 5-Year Survival Rate
Oral or oropharynx 66%
Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses 58%
Nasopharynx 32%
Larynx and hypopharnyx 60%
Skin 99%
Esophagus 47%
Lung 19%
Vagina 47%
Penis 82%

A Word From Verywell

If you have symptoms that are concerning for cancer, it is normal to feel anxious until a cause of the symptoms is known. It is important to notify your healthcare provider about your symptoms, as outcomes for cancer are generally better if caught early.


Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Updated January 1, 2015.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin cancer types: squamous cell carcinoma symptoms.

  3. National Cancer Institute. Esophageal cancer treatment. Updated October 2, 2020.

  4. American Cancer Society. What is lung cancer? Updated October 1, 2019.

  5. Cancer.net. Vaginal cancer: introduction. Updated April 2020.

  6. Cancer.Net. Penile cancer: introduction. Updated September 2019.

  7. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Skin cancer types: squamous cell carcinoma symptoms.

  8. Liao JB. Viruses and human cancerYale J Biol Med. 2006;79(3-4):115-122.

  9. American Cancer Society. How is cancer diagnosed? Updated July 30, 2015.

  10. National Cancer Institute. Cancer treatment.

Additional Reading