Jaw cancer is a rare kind of head and neck cancer that usually develops when an oral cancer spreads to the jaw. People assigned male at birth and people over 45 have a higher risk for oral cancers.

Jaw cancer usually develops when an oral cancer spreads to the jaw. It can occur in the mandible (lower jaw) or the maxilla (upper jaw).

When jaw cancer starts in the jaw, it’s considered osteosarcoma, a kind of bone cancer.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at jaw cancer, including the types, causes, symptoms, and treatment.

Diagram showing where head and neck cancers typically occurShare on Pinterest
Jaw cancer is a rare form of head and neck cancer. It may begin as an oral cancer that spreads to the jaw. Medical illustration by Jason Hoffman

Statistics for jaw cancer are often grouped in with oral and oropharyngeal cancers, also called head and neck cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 54,540 new cases of oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancers in 2023.

These cancers are twice as likely to be diagnosed in people assigned male at birth than people assigned female at birth. In addition, white people are more likely to be diagnosed with jaw cancer than Black people. The average age of diagnosis is 64. A little over 20% of diagnoses occur in people younger than 55.

Types of jaw cancer include:

  • squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) (makes up over 90% of oral cancers)
  • ameloblastic carcinoma
  • primary intraosseous carcinoma
  • sclerosing odontogenic carcinoma
  • clear cell odontogenic carcinoma
  • ghost cell odontogenic carcinoma
  • odontogenic carcinosarcoma
  • odontogenic sarcomas

Is jaw cancer curable?

When caught at an early stage, jaw cancer is highly treatable and possibly even curable.

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As with many early stages of cancer, early symptoms may not be noticeable at all. Since jaw cancer often begins as an oral cancer, some early symptoms can include:

  • white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth
  • bleeding or pain in the mouth
  • growth or swelling of the jaw

As the cancer spreads into the jaw, symptoms may increase and get more noticeable, including:

  • new or increased pain
  • pain with swallowing
  • lump in the neck
  • ear pain
  • changes in speech
  • mouth sores that don’t heal within 3 weeks

Jaw cancer is often lumped in with head and neck cancers, and so the risk factors often overlap. Risk factors don’t necessarily mean a person will develop jaw cancer, but they can increase the chance of developing the disease.

Two main risk factors include:

According to a 2017 study, the risk of head and neck cancer in smokers is approximately 10 times higher than that of people who have never smoked. That same study also found that 70% to 80% of new head and neck cancer diagnoses are associated with tobacco and alcohol use.

Secondhand smoke can also increase a person’s risk.

Other risk factors can include:

If you’re having symptoms of jaw cancer, talk with a doctor. They can do a physical exam and feel for any lumps or swollen glands, as well as visually inspect the area for anything unusual. They might also order blood or urine tests.

If your doctor suspects jaw cancer or if something looks suspicious, they may do a biopsy of your jaw. This involves taking a small piece of abnormal tissue so that it can be examined microscopically in a lab.

If a biopsy confirms cancer, your doctor may order one or more imaging tests to see whether the cancer has spread anywhere else. Imaging tests may include:

Treatment for jaw cancer depends on the stage of the cancer, potential side effects, and one’s overall health. The main treatments for oral cavity cancer, including jaw cancer, are:

Surgery involves the removal of the cancerous tissue, and depending on how much is removed, the jawbone might need to be replaced. These removal procedures can include:

  • Marginal mandibulectomy: A piece of jaw bone is removed.
  • Segmental mandibulectomy: A large part of the jaw bone is removed.
  • Maxillectomy: If the cancer has spread into the front of the roof of the mouth, part of or the entire maxilla is removed.

External beam radiation therapy is the type of radiation used to treat jaw cancer.

Chemotherapy is usually used when the cancer has spread past the jaw and may be used along with radiation therapy.

Outlook for people with cancer is typically discussed in 5-year relative survival rates. This refers to the likelihood that someone with jaw cancer will survive at least 5 years after diagnosis compared to someone without jaw cancer.

It’s important to remember that survival rates don’t take into account individual situations; they’re just an overall picture.

The American Cancer Society groups jaw cancer survival rates with oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. Survival rates depend on the stage of the cancer and how far it has spread at diagnosis.

The following table lists 5-year relative survival rates for cancers in the floor of the mouth in the United States between 2012 and 2018:

Stage of cancer5-year relative survival rate (floor of the mouth cancers)
All stages combined53%

The National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research collected the 5-year relative survival rates for oral cancer in the United States from 1996 to 2003. Here are their findings:

Stage of cancer5-year relative survival rate (all oral cancers)
All stages combined60%

Jaw cancer is a rare kind of head and neck cancer. Jaw cancer often begins in the oral cavity before spreading to the jaw.

There are various things that can increase your risk of developing this cancer, especially tobacco or alcohol use. Symptoms don’t usually occur in early stage cancer, but as it progresses, different symptoms can arise.

Treatment generally consists of surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. The specific treatment plan depends on the kind of jaw cancer you have and how far it has spread.