Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells arising in the squamous cells, which compose most of the skin’s upper layers (the epidermis). SCCs often look like scaly red patches, open sores, elevated growths with a central depression, or warts; they may crust or bleed. They can become disfiguring and sometimes deadly if allowed to grow. In 2012, an estimated 700,000 cases of SCC were diagnosed in the U.S., and between 3,900 and 8,800 people died from the disease. Incidence of the disease has increased up to 200 percent in the past three decades in the U.S.

SCC is mainly caused by cumulative ultraviolet (UV) exposure over the course of a lifetime; daily year-round exposure to the sun’s UV light, intense exposure in the summer months, and the UV produced by tanning beds all add to the damage that can lead to SCC.

SCCs may occur on all areas of the body including the mucous membranes and genitals, but are most common in areas frequently exposed to the sun, such as the rim of the ear, lower lip, face, balding scalp, neck, hands, arms and legs. Often the skin in these areas reveals telltale signs of sun damage, including wrinkles, pigment changes, freckles, “age spots,” loss of elasticity, and broken blood vessels.

Squamous cell carcinomas detected at an early stage and removed promptly are almost always curable and cause minimal damage. However, left untreated, they eventually penetrate the underlying tissues and can become disfiguring. A small percentage even metastasize to local lymph nodes, distant tissues, and organs and can become fatal. Therefore, any suspicious growth should be seen by a physician without delay. A tissue sample (biopsy) will be examined under a microscope to arrive at a diagnosis. If tumor cells are present, treatment is required.

Fortunately, there are several effective ways to eradicate squamous cell carcinoma. The choice of treatment is based on the tumor’s type, size, location, and depth of penetration, as well as the patient’s age and general health.

Treatment can almost always be performed on an outpatient basis in a physician’s office or at a clinic. A local anesthetic is used during most surgical procedures. Pain or discomfort is usually minimal, and there is rarely much pain afterwards.

Dr .Larry Jaeger is the medical director of Advanced Dermatology of New York and specializes in the areas of Medical, Cosmetic and Surgical Dermatology.