Oral cancer is any malignant growth or tumor that occurs in the mouth, lips, or throat. The most common types include squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), basal cell carcinoma (BCC), and verrucous carcinoma.

Depending on the location and severity of the tumor, treatment may involve a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Risk factors for developing oral cancers include smoking cigarettes or using smokeless tobacco products, excessive alcohol consumption, and a history of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

Oral cancers can form at the back of the mouth, the back of the throat, on or under the tongue, and in the tissues lining the mouth. They account for roughly 3% of all cancers doctors diagnose in the United States annually.

This article explains the various types of oral cancer, their symptoms, and treatments.

Doctors categorize oral cancer depending on the type of cell the cancer started in.

More than 90% of all mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas (SCC). Oropharyngeal cancers occur in the area of the throat behind the oral cavity.

SCC starts in the squamous cells, which are the flat, skin-like cells covering the inner surface of the oral cavity.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC), another type of oral cancer, starts in the basal cells of the lips. These cells are in the lower part of the epidermis, the outer layer of skin.

Other oral cancers include lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and melanomas, which start in pigment-producing cells. Some uncommon forms of oral cancer include verrucous carcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinomas, and salivary gland tumors.

Read more about oral cancers.


SCC is the most common oral cancer. It begins in the squamous cells lining the mouth, tongue, and lips.

An unusual subtype of SCC is verrucous carcinoma. It rarely spreads to distant body parts. However, it can grow deeply into the surrounding tissues of the mouth.

The number of cases of SCC has increased by up to 200% over the last 30 years.

Read more about SCC.


BCC is the most common type of skin cancer, accounting for more than 75 in 100 cases.

It develops in the basal cells of the epidermis, located in the lower part of the skin. BCC can grow anywhere on the body exposed to sunlight, including the lips.

Read more about carcinomas.

Salivary gland cancer

The mouth is full of salivary glands that produce saliva. Lumps in the salivary glands are not usually cancer. However, cancer can develop here in some cases. Usually, these cancers are adenocarcinomas, which develop in glandular tissue.

Salivary gland cancers can start in the parotid glands located in the cheeks. They might also start in the sublingual or submandibular glands below the tongue and the jaw.

Read more about salivary gland cancer here.

Adenoid cystic tumors

This is an uncommon type of cancer. These tumors can develop in the glandular tissue in the salivary glands of the mouth, usually in the parotid glands. They can also develop in the breast, skin, cervix, prostate, and various other areas.


Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which includes the spleen, tonsils, thymus gland, and other glands throughout the body.

Painless swelling of a lymph node in the neck is the most common sign of lymphoma.

Read more about lymphoma.


Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that develops from pigment-producing cells. It is an uncommon oral cancer. However, it can be particularly dangerous as it grows and spreads quickly.

Read more about melanoma.

HPV-positive cancer

HPV-positive cancer, a less common form of oral cancer, often affects young people with no history of tobacco or alcohol use.

Oral cancer can develop in the following locations:


Cancer can develop in the squamous cells of the lips. It is highly curable if doctors diagnose it early. Oral melanoma that develops on the lips can be more aggressive.

Risk factors include tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, and natural sun or UV light exposure.

The combined 5-year relative survival rate for people with lip cancer is 91%. This means around 9 in 10 people with lip cancer will still be alive 5 years after diagnosis.


The most common symptoms of lip cancer include:

  • a sore that is not healing
  • a lump or thick area on the lips
  • pain or numbness
  • bleeding

Dentists may be the first to notice these symptoms during a routine exam.


Surgery to remove cancer cells is the most common treatment for lip cancer. Medical professionals may sometimes also recommend radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of both before or after surgery.

Learn more about lip cancer.

Gums and jaws

Gum cancer is highly treatable if doctors find it early. It is more common among people who use tobacco products, especially chewing tobacco, and regularly drink alcohol.


Treatment options for cancer in the gums and jaws include the following:

  • Maxillectomy: This removes cancer from the roof of the mouth. Surgeons may use artificial prosthetics or soft tissue flaps to fill gaps.
  • Mandibulectomy: This removes cancer from the jawbone. Surgeons may also need to remove a piece of the jawbone and reconstruct it.
  • Mandibulotomy: This is the splitting of the jawbone, which doctors may recommend to reach oral cancer tumors.
  • Neck dissection: Surgeons use this to remove lymph nodes affected by cancer.

In more advanced cases, doctors may use radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination to shrink the tumor before or after surgery.


Doctors classify the tongue into two parts: the oral tongue and the base.

The oral tongue is the front two-thirds, the part that is visible when sticking out the tongue. The base consists of the back third, nearest the throat.

Tongue cancer can develop in either part. However, doctors classify cancer that develops near the throat as throat cancer, or oropharynx cancer. Oral cancer involves the front two-thirds of the tongue.

The combined 5-year relative survival rate for people with tongue cancer is 68%


Symptoms of tongue cancer may include:

  • dark, white, or red patches on the tongue
  • a sore throat or a lump or sore on the tongue that does not go away
  • pain when swallowing
  • bleeding from the tongue
  • numbness of the mouth


Treatment is individualized, but surgery to remove the cancer cells is common. In more advanced cases, doctors may recommend radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of both to shrink the tumor before or after surgery.

Doctors may recommend a glossectomy, a surgical operation to remove part or all of the tongue.

In cases where surgeons remove a sizable part of the tongue, a person may need reconstructive surgery. They may also need rehabilitation for chewing, swallowing, or speech to regain as much function as possible.

Learn more about tongue cancer.

Cancers of the palate, cheek, and other areas

Rarely, cancer begins in the roof of the mouth or the hard palate.

Cancer of the inner cheek lining, which doctors may refer to as buccal mucosa cancer, is typically a type of SCC. It occurs in the thin flat cells lining the cheek or other parts of the mouth and forms tumors or lesions.

Doctors classify cancer on the outer cheeks as skin cancer.

Often mistaken for a canker sore, floor of mouth cancer begins under the tongue.


The most common symptom of hard palate cancer is an ulcer on the roof of the mouth. Other signs include:

  • swelling
  • sores
  • tooth pain
  • numbness in the cheeks or upper teeth
  • difficulty speaking and swallowing
  • bad breath
  • bleeding
  • loose teeth or dentures no longer fitting

Symptoms of inner cheek cancer may include:

  • patches in the mouth that are dark, white, or red
  • a lump in the cheek tissue
  • hoarseness
  • a feeling of something caught in the throat
  • ear pain
  • jaw pain or swelling
  • mouth pain or numbness
  • loose teeth or dentures no longer fitting


When doctors diagnose it early, inner cheek cancer is highly curable.

Treatment for the condition varies from person to person, but surgery to remove the cancer is common. Surgeons try to preserve the functions of the mouth and a person’s facial appearance.

A medical team may recommend radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of both before or after surgery in more advanced cases.

Learn more about oral cancer surgery.

Leukoplakia and erythroplakia are two conditions that can cause a person to develop abnormal growths in the mouth.

Leukoplakia causes white patches. Erythroplakia causes red areas that bleed easily. Although harmless initially, they can transform into cancer without treatment.

Doctors can take a biopsy sample of the tissue to determine if there is dysplasia, which is abnormal cell development that can develop into cancer.

The most common causes of leukoplakia and erythroplakia are smoking and chewing tobacco.

Read more about the early signs of oral cancer.

There are several potential causes of oral cancer, including:

  • tobacco use
  • excessive alcohol use
  • experiencing an HPV infection, specifically the HPV 16 type
  • sun exposure, which can cause cancer of the lip

A person’s outlook depends on their overall health and how early doctors diagnose the cancer. Survival rates are better for people with early stage oral cancers than those whose condition is at an advanced stage.

For example, estimates suggest more than 9 in 10 people with localized lip cancer survive for at least 5 years after receiving a diagnosis. However, the estimate drops to slightly more than 3 in 10 if cancer has spread to distant sites.

For localized tongue cancer, statistics suggest more than 8 in 10 people survive for at least 5 years after receiving a diagnosis, falling to approximately 4 in 10 if cancer spreads to distant sites.

The best way to prevent oral cancer is to avoid known risk factors, such as smoking and excessive alcohol use. It is also best to limit sun exposure and wear protective lip balms when outdoors.

Regular dental visits can help with early recognition of any signs of abnormal growths in the mouth. This may allow for prompt diagnosis and treatment before cancer spreads, which improves a person’s outlook and reduces the risk of complications.

Oral cancer is a group of cancers affecting the mouth, lips, and throat. These include squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, melanoma, and lymphoma. Oral cancer is more common in people who use tobacco or drink alcohol excessively.

Symptoms of oral cancer include lesions or sores in the mouth that do not heal, white or red patches, difficulty eating or speaking, a lump in the neck or throat, and pain moving the jaw. Treatment usually involves surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapies, or a combination of these.

Early oral cancer diagnosis improves a person’s outlook and prevents complications. The best way to prevent oral cancer is to avoid risk factors by not smoking and limiting alcohol use. It may also help to attend regular dental visits to identify any unusual growths early.