How Long Does It Take to Recover from Squamous Cell Carcinoma Surgery?

Reviewed on 4/14/2022
A cancerous spot on the skin
There are several different surgical procedures that treat squamous cell carcinoma and recovery time can vary.

Squamous cell carcinoma is one of the most common types of skin cancer that occurs when cells in the top layer of skin (the epidermis) grow out of control. Squamous cells are flat cells in the upper (outer) part of the epidermis that constantly shed as new ones form. 

About 20% of all skin cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Though squamous cell cancer is not as serious as melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, it can still be serious in advanced cases. 

When squamous cell skin cancer is detected at an earlier stage, it can often be cured. When squamous cell carcinoma has spread to nearby lymph nodes, it still may be treated with a combination of surgery and radiation

10 Types of Squamous Cell Carcinoma Treatments

Treatment for squamous cell carcinoma may include surgery. There are several different procedures that may be used, depending on the size and location of the tumor and recovery time can vary. 

  • Excision to remove the entire tumor
    • Most of the time this can be performed using local anesthetic and patients can go home the same day of the procedure
    • Stitches are usually removed one to two weeks later
  • Curettage and electrodesiccation
    • A long, thin instrument with a sharp looped edge on one end (a curette) scrapes off the cancer and the area is treated with an electric needle (electrode) to destroy any remaining cancer cells
    • The procedure is often performed in a doctor's office
    • The wound may take three to six weeks to heal
    • Recovery time depends on the size of the area treated
  • Mohs surgery (also called Mohs micrographic surgery, or MMS)
    • Removes one layer of skin at a time, samples are checked for cancer, and the process is repeated until there are no cancer cells in the skin sample
    • Can be a slow process but can leave more tissue intact
    • Depending upon the size, it can take up to four to six weeks for the wound to heal completely
  • Lymph node surgery
    • Biopsy
      • A sample of tissue is taken from a lymph node 
      • If there are strips of tape on an incision, leave them on until they fall off
      • The incision may feel tender and sore for a few days  
      • Numbness and tingling along the incision can come and go anywhere from a week to more than several months as the nerves heal
    • Lymph node dissection
      • Many nodes are removed 
      • Recovery time to get back to a normal routine can take three to six weeks
  • Skin grafting and reconstructive surgery
    • Recovery time for skin grafting and reconstructive surgery can take up to one year for complete maturation of scars to occur
    • Scars may look worse before they look better
    • More than one procedure or small “touch ups” with scar revision treatments may be needed to optimize appearance

Other treatments for squamous cell carcinoma may include one:

  • Local treatments 
    • Cryotherapy: liquid nitrogen is applied to the tumor to freeze and kill cancer cells
    • Photodynamic therapy (PDT): a drug is applied to the skin that makes the cells sensitive to certain types of light, and a special light source is focused on the tumors, to kill the cells
    • Topical chemotherapy: anti-cancer medicine applied directly to the skin, usually as a cream or ointment
    • Immune response modifiers
      • Interferon 
    • Laser surgery: uses a beam of laser light to vaporize cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy
    • Used when a tumor is very large or is on an area of the skin where it is difficult to remove with surgery
    • Also used on some patients who can’t have surgery
    • Can often cure small squamous cell skin carcinomas and can delay the growth of advanced cancers
  • Systemic chemotherapy 
  • Targeted therapy 
  • Immunotherapy for advanced squamous cell skin cancers
    • Immune checkpoint inhibitors called PD-1 inhibitors: cemiplimab (Libtayo) and pembrolizumab (Keytruda) 

What Are Symptoms of Squamous Cell Carcinoma?

Squamous cell carcinoma tends to develop on sun-exposed areas of the body such as the face, lips, ears, scalp, neck, shoulders, backs of the hands, and forearms, though it may occur anywhere on the skin. 

Characteristics of squamous cell carcinomas include:

  • Raised growths or lumps, which may be depressed in the center
  • Rough or scaly red patches, which may crust or bleed
  • Open sores that may ooze or crust over, don’t completely heal, or that heal and return
  • Wart-like growths
  • A flat area only slightly different from normal skin

What Causes Squamous Cell Carcinoma?

Most squamous cell carcinomas are caused by repeated unprotected skin exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from sunlight and tanning beds. 

Risk factors for developing squamous cell carcinoma include: 

  • Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure (sunlight and tanning beds)
  • Light-colored skin
  • Older age
  • Previous skin cancer
  • Being male
  • Radiation treatment 
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as arsenic, coal tar, paraffin, and some petroleum products 
  • Long-term or severe skin inflammation or injury
    • Scars from severe burns, areas of skin over serious bone infections, and skin damaged by severe inflammatory skin diseases 
  • Psoriasis treatment with psoralens and ultraviolet light (PUVA
  • Basal cell nevus syndrome (also called nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome or Gorlin syndrome)
  • Weakened immune system from certain diseases or medical treatments
  • Xeroderma pigmentosum 
  • Smoking

How Is Squamous Cell Carcinoma Diagnosed?

Squamous cell carcinoma is diagnosed with a patient history and physical examination of the skin, along with tests such as: 

Reviewed on 4/14/2022
Image Source: iStock Images