Squamous Cell Carcinoma | Symptoms & Treatment | MedStar Health

Research-backed care for common and complex skin cancers, close to where you live and work.

Squamous cell carcinoma is a slow-growing skin cancer that can develop in the top layer of the skin, called the epidermis. It often arises on parts of the body that are damaged from too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure, like the head, face, neck, hands, and arms. It's considered a nonmelanoma skin cancer, like basal cell carcinoma, and is easily curable when caught early.

We understand that a skin cancer diagnosis can be unsettling, so we work quickly to plan the best possible treatment. We do this by uniting the strengths of our world-class doctors and healthcare professionals with expertise and training in different fields. Together, we determine the right approach for care that will lead to the most successful results, based on the latest research. While this type of cancer is often easy to treat, more advanced cases need the skill and experience only found at certain cancer centers like ours. Here, you'll benefit from a complete range of treatment options, from Mohs surgery to breakthrough therapies offered in clinical trials through our research engine, Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Symptoms and risk factors

Get your skin checked if you notice any warning signs.

It's normal to develop moles, freckles, and other growths in the skin, but some signs can indicate you may be developing skin cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma symptoms may include skin patches that:

  • Become rough, scaly, or crusty
  • Are sensitive and bleed easily
  • Have open sores that won't heal
  • Look like warts

If you notice any new or unusual changes to your skin, it's always a good idea to get them checked by your primary care doctor or dermatologist. Some skin growths can be caused by other health conditions, so getting a medical opinion can help you rule out cancer and find the cause of any changes.

A history of excessive sun exposure or tanning bed use increases your risk.

Anyone can develop squamous cell carcinoma, and the most common cause is too much UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds. You also have a greater risk of this cancer if you:

  • Are fair-skinned
  • Are over the age of 50
  • Have a family or personal history of skin cancer
  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Have actinic keratosis, a precancerous skin condition

Screening and prevention

Be cautious in the sun and proactive about skin checks.

You can't undo any sun damage that's already been done to your skin, but you can decrease your risk of squamous cell carcinoma by:

  • Cover exposed skin in broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) over 30 anytime you go outdoors
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or sweating
  • Seek shade whenever possible
  • Wearing sun protective clothing, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed hats
  • Checking your skin once a month for new or abnormal growths or marks

Early detection is important, as squamous cell carcinoma can easily be treated when it's found early. If you notice something unusual on your skin, always get it checked out sooner rather than later. And, if you have a high risk of skin cancer, you should talk to your doctor about how frequently you should get your skin evaluated by a dermatologist.


We use a physical exam and biopsy to diagnose squamous cell carcinoma.

To diagnose skin cancer, a dermatologist will first ask you several questions about your:

  • Medical history
  • Family's history of skin cancer
  • History of sunburns or tanning bed use

Then, they'll perform a physical exam to evaluate the size, shape, location, color, and texture of any unusual spots. Sometimes, your dermatologist can determine whether you may have cancer just by looking at your skin. But, you'll need a skin biopsy to confirm. During a biopsy, your dermatologist will numb the area before removing a small tissue sample to send off to a lab. There, it will be evaluated by a dermatopathologist, who is trained in both pathology and dermatology.

Although most of these cancers don't spread, more advanced stages can result in cancer metastasizing to the lymph nodes, nerves, or blood vessels. If your doctor notices a swollen lymph node nearby, they may perform a lymph node biopsy to determine whether or not you will need surgery to remove the affected nodes.


Squamous cell carcinoma is typically categorized by its risk of spreading.

There are several different types of this skin cancer based on the cancer cells' characteristics. Knowing the sub-type of squamous cell skin cancer can help your doctor to plan the most effective treatment. These cancers may also be classified as low or high risk based on their likelihood of spreading:

  • Low-risk squamous cell carcinomas are generally small, new lesions. They typically have well-defined borders and haven't been treated before.
  • High-risk squamous cell carcinomas are categorized as such if they have come back after being treated in the past, are large in size, or develop in someone who has a compromised immune system


We offer the full range of treatments for both precancerous skin lesions and all variants of skin cancer.

There are many options for successfully treating squamous cell skin cancers—and even skin areas with precancerous characteristics like actinic keratosis. Because our experts focus exclusively on diagnosing and treating skin cancers, we have the skill and resources to personalize options that will lead to your best outcome, including your aesthetic results.

Because these cancers don't often spread, many treatments can be performed as outpatient procedures in your doctor's office. After treatment, you can expect us to follow up regularly to ensure nothing is growing back. By being proactive about surveillance, we can quickly detect something early when it's easily treatable.


Most of the time, we can easily remove squamous cell tumors using surgery. Sometimes, these abnormal growths are removed using a shape or punch biopsy during the diagnostic process. Other times, the tumor has grown deeper into the skin and we need to use one of the following surgical options:

  • Mohs micrographic surgery: This has the highest cure rate for these cancers, and as an added benefit, it preserves as much healthy skin as possible. During the procedure, a specially-trained dermatologist scrapes out the cancer cells layer by layer, examining each layer under a microscope until no cancer remains.
  • Cryosurgery: Your doctor may use liquid nitrogen to freeze and kill cancerous cells. Once it thaws, the dead tissues fall off.
  • Curettage and electrodessication: For low-risk tumors, your surgeon will numb the area and use a spoons-shaped instrument to scrape away any cancerous tissue. Then, they'll use an electric needle to control bleeding and destroy any potentially cancerous cells that remain.
  • Laser therapy: This treatment vaporizes cancer cells in the outer layer of skin using a narrow beam of light.

Our skin cancer experts also work closely with MedStar Health's world-renowned plastic and reconstructive surgeons, when appropriate. If squamous cell tumors are large and the wounds cannot be closed with sutures, we may reconstruct the skin using grafts or flaps to ensure a natural cosmetic outcome that minimizes scarring. This is especially important for tumors that may develop in highly visible places, like the nose, cheeks, ears, or neck.


For most patients with squamous cell carcinoma, systemic therapies, like chemotherapy, are not necessary. These cancers are generally contained to one location and successfully removable by surgery. However, sometimes topical chemotherapies may be used to treat low-risk carcinomas and precancerous skin lesions.

If the cancer does spread to other parts of the body, your care will include expertise from a medical oncologist who may recommend advanced drugs and therapy combinations based on the latest research.

Learn More About Chemotherapy

Immunotherapy and targeted therapy

While these therapies play an important role in treating life-threatening skin cancers, like melanoma, they are not generally used to treat squamous cell carcinoma tumors.

Learn More About Immunotherapy

Learn More About Targeted Therapy

Radiation therapy

Sometimes, your doctors will recommend external beam radiation therapy, which is a powerful cancer treatment. This can be useful for patients with a high risk of surgical complications or those with a greater risk of recurrence. If this is an appropriate treatment option for you, a radiation oncologist will use state-of-the-art technology and the right dose and frequency of radiation to maximize your results while minimizing any side effects to your skin.

Learn More About Radiation Therapy

Looking for expert cancer care?

With multiple locations throughout the region, patients have access to many of the nation’s renowned cancer specialists offering high quality care, second opinions and a chance for better outcomes close to where they live and work. Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the nation’s comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), serves as the research engine allowing patients access to clinical trials that often lead to breakthroughs in cancer care.

Our locations

Distance from Change locationEnter your location

MedStar Health: Dermatology at Chevy Chase

5530 Wisconsin Ave
The Chevy Chase Bldg.
Ste. 730
Chevy Chase, MD 20815

MedStar Health: Dermatology at Lafayette Centre

1133 21st St. NW
Building 2
5th Floor
Washington, D.C., 20036

MedStar Health: Dermatology at MedStar Washington Hospital Center

110 Irving St. NW
Suite 1A50A
Washington, D.C., 20010

MedStar Health: Dermatology in Washington D.C.

106 Irving St. NW
Physician's Office Bldg. South
Ste. 410
Washington, D.C., 20010

Why choose us

Your treatment is based on the opinion of several experienced specialists who work together under the same roof. We take a team approach to treating squamous cell carcinoma and skin cancer. Your care is personalized based on the input of multiple health professionals who have decades of combined experience in exclusively diagnosing and treating these cancers. Your care team may include:

However, you won't have to travel to different offices to get the answers you need. Wherever you see us, you can access your complete team of specialists with the help and coordination of a nurse navigator who will serve as your direct point of contact.

We offer all of the latest surgical and nonsurgical treatment options, including breakthrough clinical trials. We consider your diagnosis and preferences as we design an individualized treatment plan that uses the most effective approach for both eliminating your cancer and preserving your cosmetic appearance. In addition, through our partnership with the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, we regularly participate in clinical trials which may offer alternative options for treating more advanced cases of skin cancer. This ensures you have access to the latest treatment options the moment they become available.

You'll benefit from a comprehensive survivorship program to monitor your skin recurring skin cancer. If you've been diagnosed with skin cancer, you are at risk for developing others. That's why we work proactively to check your skin regularly. Frequent skin exams ensure we can detect any abnormalities or signs of recurrence early when they can easily be treated. And with locations throughout the Washington, D.C., and Maryland region, we make it convenient to see us close to where you live and work.

Awards and recognition

Recipient of an Accreditation with Commendation, the highest level of approval, from the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer (CoC)

Numerous surgeons, medical oncologists, and surgical oncologists recognized as "Top Doctors" by both Baltimore Magazine and the Washingtonian

Magnet® designation from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

Clinical trials and research

Clinical trials

When you participate in clinical trials, you can be among some of the first to benefit from promising new treatment options that may not be widely available elsewhere. This ensures you get early access to breakthrough treatments, and it also allows you to play a role in advancing the standard of care for patients with squamous cell carcinoma in the future.

Learn More


Through our research engine, Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, our doctors and scientists regularly lead and participate in investigations that help us find new and better ways to prevent and treat skin cancers. Because our doctors are leaders in research, we can quickly translate new findings to patient care anywhere you see us for skin cancer treatment in the region.

Learn More

Support services

At MedStar Health, we're not treating your disease—we're treating you. Here, you'll be supported by doctors and other health professionals who promote your comfort, healing, and overall well-being through various specialized programs and services. So whatever your needs are, we can help you thrive.

Learn More About Cancer Support Services

Genetic counseling

Some hereditary factors can affect the likelihood that you or your loved ones develop cancer. With the help of our board-certified genetic counselors, you and your family can understand and manage your risk of skin cancer and recurrence.

Learn More About Genetic Counseling

Personalized rehabilitation

If your skin cancer requires surgery near a joint or otherwise functionally sensitive part of the body, you may benefit from rehabilitation services that can restore your strength and range of motion. Likewise, if your cancer treatment leaves lasting side effects, we'll develop a personalized rehabilitation plan to maximize your quality of life.

Learn More About Cancer Rehabilitation


Once you've had skin cancer, your risk for developing other or recurring skin tumors increases. Through our comprehensive survivorship program, we'll personalize a surveillance plan to ensure regular skin checks throughout your life. By taking a proactive approach to monitoring changes to your skin, you can rest assured any concerning signs are detected early and treated promptly.

Learn More About the Cancer Survivorship Program