What does it mean to be a squamous cell carcinoma and how is this relevant to head and neck cancers?

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BruceCampbellMD (Physician (Verified) ) - 08 / 29 / 2012

If a cell is “squamous,” that means that it looks flat under the microscope; thus, squamous cells are flat cells. Squamous cells more cube-shaped when they are first produced and then flatten out as they reach the surface. Eventually, they are sloughed off, only to be replaced by the new cells rising up from below. Thus, squamous cells replenish themselves. When they replenish at the proper rate, everything is fine.

Squamous cells are most numerous on the body’s outside surface and in regions where there is a transition from the outside to the inside. Thus, normal, healthy squamous cells are found on the skin and lining tissues in places such as the ear, nose, mouth, throat, esophagus, trachea, lung, vagina, cervix, and anus.

When cancers arise from these cells, they are called “squamous cell cancers,” or “squamous cell carcinomas.” There are a variety of triggers that can turn a healthy squamous cell into a squamous cell cancer, but the underlying change involves a series of genetic events that push a normal cell to a pre-malignant cell (often described with terms like “dysplasia,” “atypia,” or “carcinoma in situ”) to a cancer cell. Things that can trigger or promote change include UV radiation (for skin and lip cancers), tobacco, alcohol, human papilloma virus (HPV), Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), and chronic irritation.
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