May is skin cancer awareness month and we have already touched on the ABCDEs of at-home skin cancer checks and basal cell carcinoma. Today, we will be discussing a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Did you know that squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer in Canada after basal cell carcinoma?

Treatment for SCC should not be put off. As more damage is done to surrounding tissues it will get larger, and if left untreated a small percentage may spread to distant tissues, organs, and/or local lymph glands. When SCC metastasizes, it can be fatal. SCC can develop from pre-cancerous growths or “sunspots” called actinic keratoses.

As with the previous skin cancers we have learned about, SCCs are caused by chronic exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and/or tanning beds. SCC is the result of a mutation in a squamous cell’s DNA which instructs the cells to grow out of control and continue living, when normally they would die. This skin cancer can occur on any part of your body, but lesions that develop on the ears or lips are generally considered more serious. This is because they can be more aggressive and prone to spreading to nearby lymph glands.

Factors that may increase your risk of developing SCC include fair skin, past history of skin cancer, and history of chronic ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds. Renal organ transplant patients whose immune systems are compromised also face a higher risk; in these patients, the malignant cells tend to act more aggressively and may spread to other parts of the body. People who use tanning beds have a much higher risk of getting SCC, with onset beginning earlier in life.

SCC can appear as a wart-like growth that is thickened, red, and/or has scaly bumps. They can also look like an open sore, or dry scaly patches of skin. They are often tender, but sometimes they may not cause pain at all.

It is important to note that SCCs can look quite different from one person to another; when in doubt, check it out. Any sore that does not heal within four weeks should be examined by a skin specialist. Follow your instincts and visit your dermatologist if you see anything new, changing, or unusual on your skin.

Now that you know what to look for, an important question to ask is how do you help prevent this type of skin cancer? Avoid spending time in the sun during the hottest hours of the day, wear protective clothing, apply SPF year-round (even when it is cool or rainy out), and avoid tanning beds. Lastly, it is important to perform self skin checks at home and report any changes you may notice to your family doctor or dermatologist.

Sometimes the hard topics in life are worth discussing; they just might help save a life!


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