A cancer diagnosis can bring a lot of questions and concerns. One of your biggest worries may be about the future. Will you have enough time with your family and other loved ones?
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) generally has a high survival rate. The 5-year survival is 99 percent when detected early.
Once SCC has spread to the lymph nodes and beyond, the survival rates are lower. Yet this cancer is still treatable with surgery and other therapies, even in its advanced stages.
Your doctor will give you a prognosis based on your medical history, along with the location and stage of your cancer. Together you can decide on the best treatment for your cancer.
The survival rate is the percentage of people who live for a certain period of time (typically reported as 5 years after diagnosis) with this cancer. The number is based on research done on large groups of people with the same stage of cancer.
Experts don’t know the exact survival numbers for late-stage SCC, because cancer registries don’t track statistics for this cancer. However, your doctor may be able to give you an estimate of your prognosis.
When it comes to surviving cancer, everyone is different. Your outcome will depend on the specific treatments you have and how well you respond to them. Talk to your doctor about your outlook and what it means.
All cancer starts in one part of your body. With SCC, it starts in your skin. From there, cancer cells can spread.
How far your cancer has spread is known as its stage. Doctors assign skin cancers a stage number between 0 and 4.
Stage 4 means your cancer has spread beyond your skin. Your doctor might call the cancer “advanced” or “metastatic” at this stage. It means your cancer has traveled to one or more of your lymph nodes, and it may have reached your bones or other organs.
The stage of your cancer and where it is located will help your doctor find the right treatment for you. At stage 4 your cancer may not be curable, but it is still treatable.
Finishing your treatment can come as a huge relief, especially if your doctor tells you you’re in remission. Yet your cancer can come back. This is called a recurrence.
See your doctor for regular follow-up visits to catch any recurrence early, when it’s most treatable. The doctor who treated your cancer will let you know how often to get check-ups. You may see your doctor every 3 months for the first year, and then less often.
Certain aspects of your health or cancer could affect your outlook. For example, people who have a weakened immune system from a disease like HIV or a medication they take tend to have a less positive outlook.
The location of the tumor also matters. Cancers on the face, scalp, fingers, and toes are more likely to spread and return than those on other parts of the body. SCC that starts in an open wound is also more likely to spread.
Larger tumors or ones that have grown deep in the skin have a higher risk of growing or returning. If a cancer does recur after treatment, the prognosis is less positive than it was the first time around.
Ask your doctor if you have any risk factors that can be managed or controlled. You may need more aggressive treatment, or to be monitored more closely for recurrence.
Even if you’ve exhausted all of your treatment options, you don’t have to give up. Researchers are always testing new SCC treatments in clinical trials. Getting into one of these studies could give you access to a drug or therapy that might slow or stop your cancer.
To avoid the worsening of your skin cancer or a new cancer in a different area, protect yourself from the sun’s damaging UV rays. Wear sun-protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat whenever you go outdoors. Apply a layer of broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
Also check your own skin for any new growths on a regular basis. Report any skin changes to your doctor right away.
Having a stage 4 cancer can cause a lot of uncertainty. It may help you feel better to talk with your doctor about your outlook and learn all you can about your cancer.
When you do learn the prognosis for your stage of cancer, remember that every person with SCC is different. Statistics don’t tell the whole story. Also, know that researchers are developing new treatments that are constantly improving the outlook for people with advanced SCC.