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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on July 8, 2021.

Oral cancer types

Every oral cancer patient is different. The cancer experts at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) have extensive experience in staging and diagnosing the disease, and developing a treatment plan tailored to each patient's specific type of oral cancer.

In the United States, oral cancer makes up an estimated 3 percent of all cancer diagnoses each year, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. That means 53,000 new cases of oral cancer per year.

Squamous cell carcinoma: More than 90 percent of cancers that occur in the oral cavity are squamous cell carcinomas. Normally, the throat and mouth are lined with so-called squamous cells, which are flat and look like fish scales on a microscopic level. Squamous cell carcinoma develops when some squamous cells mutate and become abnormal.

Verrucous carcinoma: About 5 percent of all oral cavity tumors are verrucous carcinoma, a type of very slow-growing cancer made up of squamous cells. This type of oral cancer rarely spreads to other parts of the body, but it may invade nearby tissue.

Minor salivary gland carcinomas: This disease includes several types of oral cancer that may develop on the minor salivary glands, which are located throughout the lining of the mouth and throat. These include adenoid cystic carcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma and polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma.

Lymphoma: Oral cancers that develop in lymph tissue, which is part of the immune system, are known as lymphomas. The tonsils and base of the tongue both contain lymphoid tissue.

Benign oral cavity tumors: Several types of non-cancerous tumors and tumor-like conditions may develop in the oral cavity and oropharynx. Sometimes, these conditions may develop into cancer. For this reason, benign tumors are often surgically removed. The types of benign lesions include:

  • Eosinophilic granuloma
  • Fibroma
  • Granular cell tumor
  • Keratoacanthoma
  • Leiomyoma
  • Osteochondroma
  • Lipoma
  • Schwannoma
  • Neurofibroma
  • Papilloma
  • Condyloma acuminatum
  • Verruciform xanthoma
  • Pyogenic granuloma
  • Rhabdomyoma
  • Odontogenic tumors (lesions that begin in tooth-forming tissues)

Leukoplakia and erythroplakia: These non-cancerous conditions develop when certain types of abnormal cells form in the mouth or throat. When leukoplakia develops, a white area is visible, while erythroplakia is marked by a red area, which may be flat or slightly raised and often bleeds when scraped. Both conditions may be precancerous, meaning they may develop into various types of cancer. When these conditions occur, a biopsy or other test is performed to determine whether the cells are cancerous. About 25 percent of leukoplakias are either cancerous when first discovered or become precancerous. Erythroplakia is usually more serious, with about 70 percent of cases deemed to be cancerous, either at the time of diagnosis or later.

Lip cancer

Lip cancer, the most common form of oral cancer, affects mostly men. It’s divided into two types: squamous cell and basal cell. The most common type of lip cancer forms in the squamous cells, which are the thin, flat cells that line the lips and mouth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1,847 new cases of lip cancer were diagnosed in 2016. Lip cancer is diagnosed using tests such as:

  • A physical exam of the lips to check for abnormalities
  • Exfoliative cytology to swab or gently scrape cells from the lip area, which are then analyzed under a microscope

Risk factors for lip cancer include:

Lip cancer symptoms are similar to those of other types of oral cancer. These symptoms are often mistaken for a persistent cold or toothache. Other symptoms may include:

  • A sore on the lip that doesn't heal
  • Persistent lip pain or lip numbness
  • A lump or thickening on the lip
  • A white or red patch on the lip
  • A neck mass

Treatments for lip cancer

Our goal is to treat lip cancer in ways that cause as little damage to healthy tissue as possible and lead to few side effects. We develop individual treatment plans based on the size, location and stage of each patient's lip cancer.

Surgery is often the first treatment option for lip cancer that has been detected at an early stage. Surgery also may be included in a treatment program for advanced-stage cancer. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted drug therapy, or a combination of these, also may be options for patients with lip cancer.

Jaw cancer

Cancer rarely starts in the jaw. Sometimes, cysts or growths form in the jaw area, called odontogenic tumors, but most often, these tumors are benign (noncancerous). Malignant (cancerous) tumors are estimated to account for between 1 percent and 6 percent of all odontogenic tumors, according to the Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Some cancerous jaw tumors may grow rapidly and cause pain and tingling.

The types of cancerous odontogenic tumors include:

  • Ameloblastic carcinoma
  • Primary intraosseous carcinoma
  • Sclerosing odontogenic carcinoma
  • Clear cell odontogenic carcinoma
  • Ghost cell odontogenic carcinoma
  • Odontogenic carcinosarcoma
  • Odontogenic sarcomas

In general, most of these malignant tumors grow in the back of the mouth, near the molars on the lower jaw (mandible). Some affect the upper jaw (maxilla).

Symptoms may include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Jaw spasms
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Damage to bones

Some of these tumor types, such as clear cell odontogenic carcinoma, may not cause any painful symptoms.

Diagnosis may include:

  • Biopsy to remove a sample of the tumor cells (which are studied under a microscope)
  • Imaging tests, such as X-rays, to see the extent of cancer spread within the jaw

Treatments for jaw cancer

Treatment may depend on the type of tumor, but surgery is typically the first option. In some cases, chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be recommended along with surgery. As these tumors are rare, treatment options may not be standardized.

Palate, cheek and other mouth cancers

Mouth cancer is a type of oral cancer that develops in any part of the mouth, including the lips, gums, tongue, roof of the mouth, cheeks and uvula.

According to the CDC, this is how many cancer cases were diagnosed in various parts of the mouth in 2016:

  • Floor of the mouth: 1,978
  • Gum: 1,727
  • Soft palate and uvula: 743
  • Hard palate: 859
  • Cheek and other mouth: 2,463

Risk factors for these types of cancer are similar to other oral cancers and include:

  • Use of tobacco products and alcohol
  • Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Age (adults older than 40 are most at risk)
  • Exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds

Diagnosis involves a physical exam of the mouth area to look for signs of cancer and a swab to collect cells for laboratory analysis.

Common mouth cancer symptoms

Symptoms of mouth cancer are similar to those associated with other forms of oral cancer. These symptoms are often mistaken for a cold that won't go away or a persistent sore in the mouth. Other mouth cancer symptoms may include:

  • Persistent tongue and/or jaw pain
  • A lump or thickening in the inside of the mouth
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue

Treatments for mouth cancer

Common treatments for mouth cancer include:

Surgery: Tumor resection involves an operation to remove the entire tumor from the mouth. Depending on the location of the tumor, a small incision may be made in the neck or jawbone for easier removal. When a tumor is surgically removed, it may be necessary to reconstruct part of the mouth. In these cases, our surgeons may perform pedicle or free flap reconstruction.

Radiation therapy: Today's radiation therapy technology treats cancerous tissues of the mouth with more accuracy using equipment designed to spare healthy tissue and shorten procedure times. External beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and brachytherapy are the two most common radiation therapies used to treat mouth cancer.

Chemotherapy: Often combined with radiation therapy, chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells throughout the body. Various chemotherapy drugs may be combined to attack cancer cells at varying stages of their growth cycles and decrease the chance of drug resistance.

Targeted drug therapy: Targeted drug therapy works by interfering with cancer cell growth on a molecular level. It may be combined with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy as part of a personalized treatment plan for mouth cancer.

Immunotherapy: These drugs work by helping the body's immune system identify and kill cancer cells.

Tongue cancer

Tongue cancer is a type of oral cancer that forms in the front two-thirds of the tongue. The National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program estimates there will be 17,960 new cases of tongue cancer in 2021.

As with other types of oral cancer, risk factors for tongue cancer include smoking, heavy alcohol use and HPV infections.

Tongue cancer is generally diagnosed with a biopsy. A tongue biopsy involves a doctor inserting a small needle into the tongue to extract a small sample of tissue. The procedure usually requires local anesthesia to numb the tongue, but if a larger area is removed, you may be given general anesthesia. The tissue sample is sent to a lab for analysis.

Tongue cancer usually develops in the squamous cells, which are the thin, flat cells that cover the surface of the tongue.

Common tongue cancer symptoms

Symptoms of tongue cancer are very similar to symptoms of other types of oral cancer. These signs are often mistaken for a cold that won’t go away, or a persistent sore in the mouth. Other tongue cancer symptoms may include:

  • Persistent tongue and/or jaw pain
  • A lump or thickening in the inside the mouth
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth
  • A sore throat or persistent feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue

Treatments for tongue cancer

Common tongue cancer treatments include:

Surgery: Tumor resection involves an operation to remove the entire tumor from the tongue. The procedure may involve minimally invasive surgical techniques, when possible.

Radiation therapy: If radiation therapy is recommended, the radiation oncologist will administer high doses of radiation to cancerous tissues of the tongue using technology designed to spare healthy tissue and shorten procedure times.

Chemotherapy: Often combined with radiation therapy, chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells throughout the body. This may be an option if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. Various chemotherapy drugs may be combined to attack cancer cells at varying stages of their growth cycles and decrease the chance of drug resistance.

Targeted drug therapy: Targeted drug therapy works by interfering with cancer cell growth on a molecular level. It is often combined with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy as part of a patient’s tongue cancer treatment plan.

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