The cell type and location of oral cancer can influence your treatment options and outlook.

“Oral cancer” is an umbrella term that includes cancers that develop in your mouth and throat areas. These can include your lips, tongue, gums, and the back of your throat.

Your symptoms, treatment, and outlook depend on where cancer develops and the kinds of cells involved.

Here’s what you need to know about the various types of oral cancer and how they differ by location and cell type.

Doctors classify oral cancer by the cells in which cancer develops.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs). These tumors develop within the thin squamous cells that line your mouth and throat.

SCCs are treatable in the early stages with surgery and radiation therapy. However, these cancers may spread into deeper layers of tissues around the oral cavity.

Verrucous carcinoma

Verrucous carcinoma is a subtype of SCC. It’s a slow growing cancer and usually doesn’t spread. Common symptoms of oral verrucous carcinoma include bad breath, pain, and difficulty swallowing.

Minor salivary gland carcinoma

Minor salivary gland carcinomas are also relatively rare forms of oral cancer. Most cases develop in the mouth. The cancer may also occur in the soft palate, sinuses, or voice box.

Surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy may treat minor salivary gland cancer.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects your lymphatic system. While not common in the oral cavity, lymphoma may sometimes develop within the soft tissues in the mouth or jaw.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are common treatments for oral lymphoma.

Mucosal melanoma

Mucosal melanomas consist of brown or black tumors. They grow to an average of 4 centimeters (cm) long. These are relatively rare types of cancer cells. Bleeding and lumps are the most common symptoms.

Surgery is required to remove mucosal melanomas. If doctors can’t surgically remove the tumor, they may offer chemotherapy, but it’s not as effective.

A persistent sore on your lip that won’t heal can be a sign of lip cancer. Primary causes of lip cancer include sun exposure, tobacco use, and heavy alcohol use.

The two main treatment options for lip cancer are surgery and radiation therapy. While treatable, lip cancers may spread to the neck or head.

Tongue cancers may be linked to human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, smoking, and heavy alcohol use.

Common signs include unexplained lumps or spots on the tongue that won’t heal. Other symptoms may include white or red patches on your tongue, burning, and pain.

Cancers that develop in the front part of the tongue may be easier to treat. Options for treating this type of cancer include surgery and radiation therapy.

Buccal mucosa (inner cheek) cancer is a type of oral cancer that develops within the buccal mucosa tissues that line the inside of your cheeks. Heavy alcohol use and using tobacco products are two major risk factors.

A dentist may first detect signs of inner cheek cancer by noticing lumps or patches along the area. You might also experience symptoms, such as pain or discomfort extending from your mouth to your jaw and throat.

You can treat inner cheek cancer with surgery along with either chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Your outlook with inner cheek cancer is usually good if doctors diagnose it before it spreads.

Often mistaken as canker sores, floor of mouth cancer consists of tumors that develop in the area underneath your tongue. It primarily develops from chewing tobacco. Other risk factors include smoking and heavy alcohol use.

Floor of mouth cancer can cause painful lumps or patches under your tongue and general mouth and neck pain.

Early cases are treatable with surgery. More advanced cases also require radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Radiation therapy is more likely for tumors longer than 0.5 cm.

Gum cancer begins in the cells of your gumline and may affect either your upper or lower gums.

The symptoms of gum cancer are similar to gingivitis and can include bleeding and sensitive gums. Other signs include patches on your gums or thickening of the tissues.

Gum cancer has a high cure rate when diagnosed early. Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

Surgery is often the first-line treatment. If your upper gums are affected, a surgeon may remove cells from the roof of your mouth. Lower gum cancer may involve surgery around your jawbone and neck lymph nodes.

Hard palate cancer affects the front area of the roof of your mouth. It usually develops from tobacco use. Alcohol use, poor oral hygiene, and HPV infections are other risk factors.

Early symptoms include difficulty swallowing, bad breath, and bleeding from the mouth.

Surgery is the primary treatment for this type of cancer. Radiation therapy is another option.

Oropharyngeal cancer describes cancers that affect the middle of your throat.

Throat cancer” is a general way to describe different cancers that may affect the throat area. One such type is oropharyngeal cancer. It affects the middle part of your throat, including your:

  • soft palate
  • tonsils
  • side and back walls of your throat
  • back of your tongue

Common symptoms of oropharyngeal cancers include swallowing difficulties, a persistent sore throat, and a lump in your throat. This cancer also has links to tobacco use.

Treatment will likely consist of surgery. It may also include radiation therapy and chemotherapy for larger tumors.

Persistent sores, discomfort, and irritation that last longer than 2 weeks may be signs of something a doctor needs to evaluate.

Specific early signs of mouth cancers may include:

  • an unusual lump or sore that won’t heal
  • difficulty with chewing or swallowing
  • an unexplainable white or red patch inside your mouth
  • numbness, pain, or bleeding
  • jaw swelling or stiffness
  • sore throat
  • feelings of something caught in your throat
  • problems with talking
  • loose teeth
  • inability to fit your dentures

Types of benign oral tumors

Benign oral tumors are unusual growths in the mouth that are not cancerous.

Doctors usually remove benign tumors with surgery to alleviate discomfort, but the tumors are not expected to become cancerous or life threatening.

Common examples of benign oral tumors include:

  • fibromas
  • granular cell tumors
  • neurofibromas
  • oral hemangioma
  • peripheral giant cell granulomas
  • pyogenic granulomas
  • schwannomas
Was this helpful?

What is the most common type of oral cancer?

SCC is the most common type of oral cancer. This is because squamous cells line your entire mouth and throat areas. Almost every case of oral cancer is SCC.

What is the survival rate of oral squamous cell carcinoma?

The average 5-year relative survival rate of localized oral cancers is 59–94%, according to data collected between 2012 and 2018.

An exact survival rate depends on where the cancer starts, whether the cancer has spread, and if other types of cells may be involved besides squamous cells.

Where do most oral cancers start?

The tongue, lip, and floor of mouth are the most common oral cancer sites.

Several types of oral cancers can develop in the mouth and throat. These cancers typically have a positive outlook if detected and treated in early stages before the tumors can spread to other parts of the neck and head or lymph nodes.

Visit a doctor right away if you notice any possible symptoms of oral cancer.

While most of these cancers are treatable in the early stages, they can also spread quickly. A doctor can make a diagnosis and start you on treatment as soon as possible to improve your outlook.