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Best prevention strategies for squamous cell carcinoma

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Written by Andrew Le, MD.
Medically reviewed by
Clinical Physician Assistant, Summit Health
Last updated June 18, 2024

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What is Squamous Cell Carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that develops in the squamous cells, which are the flat cells that make up the outermost layer of the skin. SCC typically appears as a red, scaly patch or bump on the skin that may crust or bleed. It can occur anywhere on the body but is most commonly found on sun-exposed areas such as the face, ears, neck, hands, and arms. If left untreated, SCC can grow larger and deeper into the skin, potentially spreading to nearby lymph nodes or other organs [1].

The primary cause of SCC is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or indoor tanning beds. Other risk factors include fair skin, weakened immune system, history of skin cancer, chronic skin inflammation or injury, and infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) [1, 5, 6].

SCC is typically staged from 0 to IV based on factors like tumor size, how deep it is, and whether it has spread to lymph nodes or distant organs. When detected early, most SCCs are highly treatable and curable. The 5-year survival rate for early-stage SCC is around 99% [1, 3]. However, advanced SCCs (stage III and IV) have a poorer prognosis and can be more challenging to treat effectively [1].

It's important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of SCC so that you can catch it early. Any new, persistent, or changing growths, sores, or patches on the skin should be checked by a healthcare provider, especially if they are painful, bleeding, or not healing. Regular self-skin exams and annual skin checks by a dermatologist are also important for early detection [1, 2].

Risk Factors for Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Understanding the risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma is important for prevention and early detection. The primary risk factors for SCC include:

  1. Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation Exposure: Cumulative lifetime exposure to UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds is the major risk factor, because the sun causes DNA damage that leads to SCC [1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 22]. The more time spent in the sun or using tanning beds, the higher the risk. People who live in sunny climates, work outdoors, or have a history of sunburns are particularly vulnerable. UV radiation can penetrate the skin even on cloudy days and through windows, so consistent protection is essential.
  2. Weakened Immune System: Conditions like HIV, lymphoma, leukemia, or immunosuppressive medications weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of SCC and other skin cancers [2, 11, 18]. When the immune system is compromised, it's less able to detect and destroy abnormal cells, allowing cancer to develop and spread more easily. People with weakened immune systems need to be especially vigilant about sun protection and skin monitoring.
  3. History of Skin Cancer: Personal or family history of skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma (BCC), increases the risk of developing SCC [3]. If you've had one type of skin cancer, you're at higher risk for developing another. Regular skin checks and preventive measures are crucial for those with a history of skin cancer.
  4. Genetic Disorders: Rare genetic disorders like xeroderma pigmentosum and photosensitivity conditions impair DNA repair [4, 9, 20, 21]. These disorders make the skin extremely sensitive to UV damage and less able to repair the damage, leading to a high risk of skin cancers at a young age. Specialized care and rigorous sun protection are essential for managing these conditions.
  5. Precancerous Skin Growths: Conditions like actinic keratosis and Bowen's disease, often caused by sun damage, are linked to an increased risk of progressing to SCC [5, 6, 9]. These growths appear as rough, scaly patches on the skin and can be a warning sign of developing SCC. Prompt treatment of precancerous growths can help prevent progression to invasive SCC.
  6. Atopic Dermatitis: Atopic dermatitis has been associated with an increased risk of BCC and SCC [18]. This chronic inflammatory skin condition can lead to persistent skin damage and impaired barrier function, which may contribute to skin cancer. Effective management of atopic dermatitis and sun protection are important for reducing risk.
  7. High-Risk Activities: Surfers and swimmers have consistently higher rates of precancerous actinic keratosis, non-melanoma skin cancer, and melanoma compared to the general population [22]. The combination of prolonged UV exposure, reflective surfaces like water and sand, and potential sun-sensitizing effects of seawater may contribute to this increased risk. Rigorous sun protection measures are crucial for those engaging in water sports and beach activities.

Other less common risk factors include long-term radiation exposure, certain occupational exposures, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection on mucosal sites [9]. It's important to be aware of your individual risk factors and take appropriate preventive measures. If you have multiple risk factors, you may need more frequent skin checks and specialized care. Talk to your healthcare provider about your specific risks and the best prevention and monitoring strategies for you.

Preventive Measures and Lifestyle Changes

Preventing squamous cell carcinoma includes a combination of protective measures and lifestyle modifications. The most important strategies include

Sun Protection

Protecting the skin from the sun’s UV rays is the key to preventing SCC. This includes always using broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, wearing protective clothing and a wide brimmed hat, and seeking shade. It’s also important to never use tanning beds.

Apply sunscreen liberally to all exposed skin, and reapply every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating. Look for broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF of at least 30. Some top-rated options include:

  1. EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46: This lightweight, oil-free formula is ideal for acne-prone and sensitive skin. It contains niacinamide to calm inflammation and hyaluronic acid to hydrate.
  2. La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Milk Sunscreen SPF 60: This fast-absorbing, velvety lotion provides high-level protection and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. It's also fragrance-free and non-comedogenic (doesn’t clog pores)..
  3. Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40: This innovative, totally invisible sunscreen doubles as a makeup primer. It has a unique oil-free formula that leaves a smooth, matte finish.

UV-Protective Clothing

Wearing UV-protective clothing is an effective way to shield your skin from harmful sun rays. Look for clothing with a high Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating, which indicates the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that can penetrate the fabric. A UPF of 50 or higher is recommended for excellent protection.

Benefits of UV-protective clothing::

  • Provides a physical barrier against UV radiation, blocking most harmful rays.
  • Covers large areas of skin, complementing the use of sunscreen.
  • Offers consistent protection, unlike sunscreen which needs reapplication.
  • Lightweight and breathable options are available for comfort.

When choosing UV-protective clothing, look for lightweight, loose-fitting garments made of tightly-woven fabrics like polyester or lightweight denim. Long sleeves, pants, and wide-brimmed hats offer the best coverage. Consider investing in a few key pieces, especially for outdoor activities or occupations with prolonged sun exposure.

Some recommended options include:

  1. Coolibar UPF 50+ Clothing: This brand offers a wide range of stylish, high-quality UPF clothing for men, women, and children. From swimwear to everyday wear, their pieces provide excellent sun protection.
  2. Columbia Sportswear Omni-Shade UPF Clothing: Columbia's Omni-Shade line includes UPF 50 shirts, pants, hats, and more. Their clothing is designed for outdoor activities and is lightweight, breathable, and quick-drying.
  3. Solumbra UPF 100+ Clothing: Solumbra offers some of the highest UPF ratings available, with clothing that blocks over 99% of UV rays. Their styles range from casual to dressy, making sun protection easy in any setting.

Don't forget accessories like wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses with UV protection, and UPF gloves for driving or outdoor activities. By covering as much skin as possible with UPF clothing and accessories, you can significantly reduce your UV exposure and skin cancer risk.

Early Detection and Screening Methods

Early detection can greatly improve your chance of successful treatment of squamous cell skin cancer. When caught early, most SCCs are curable. The key methods for early detection include:

  1. Skin Self-Exams: Regularly checking your own skin for new growths, spots, or sores that don't heal can help detect skin cancer early. The American Cancer Society recommends monthly self-exams [1, 2]. Stand in front of a full-length mirror and use a hand mirror to check hard-to-see areas like the back, scalp, and buttocks. Look for any new, changing, or unusual growths, sores, or patches. Don't forget to check between the toes, under the nails, and on the palms and soles. If you notice anything concerning, make an appointment with a dermatologist promptly.
  2. Clinical Skin Exams: Regular skin exams by a dermatologist or other healthcare provider are important for detecting skin cancers, including SCCs, at an early stage. Experts recommend annual skin checks, with more frequent exams if you’re high risk [2, 3]. During a skin exam, the provider will carefully inspect the skin from head to toe, looking for any suspicious growths or changes. They may use a special magnifying tool called a dermatoscope to get a closer look at certain spots. If anything suspicious is found, they may recommend a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.
  3. Biopsy: A skin biopsy can confirm the diagnosis of SCC. Biopsy is considered the gold standard for diagnosing skin cancer [3]. There are several types of skin biopsies, including shave biopsy, punch biopsy, and excisional biopsy. The choice depends on factors like the size, location, and appearance of the lesion. The tissue sample is then sent to a lab, where it is examined under a microscope by a pathologist to determine if cancer cells are present and, if so, what type of skin cancer it is.
  4. Imaging Techniques: Newer non-invasive imaging techniques like dermoscopy, reflectance confocal microscopy (RCM), and high-frequency ultrasonography (HFUS) can improve diagnostic accuracy and help guide biopsy site selection [4-16]. Dermoscopy uses a special magnifying lens and light source to examine skin lesions in detail, allowing for better differentiation between benign and malignant growths. RCM uses a low-power laser to create detailed images of the skin at a cellular level, providing a "virtual biopsy" without the need for cutting the skin. HFUS uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of the skin and underlying structures, helping to assess tumor depth and margins.
  5. Screening Programs: While the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently concludes there is insufficient evidence to recommend routine skin cancer screening, some organizations recommend periodic full-body skin exams, especially for high-risk individuals [10-12]. Risk factors like personal or family history of skin cancer, fair skin, history of sunburns or indoor tanning, and certain genetic disorders may warrant more frequent screening. Talk to your healthcare provider about your individual risk factors and the appropriate screening schedule for you.

Citations:

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Clinical Physician Assistant, Summit Health
Jeff brings to Buoy 20 years of clinical experience as a physician assistant in urgent care and internal medicine. He also has extensive experience in healthcare administration, most recently as developer and director of an urgent care center. While completing his doctorate in Health Sciences at A.T. Still University, Jeff studied population health, healthcare systems, and evidence-based medicine....
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