Types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancers

The type of cancer tells you what type of cell the cancer started in.

Most mouth and oropharyngeal cancers start in squamous cells and are called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Other types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancers include:

  • salivary gland cancer
  • adenoid cystic tumours
  • basal cell carcinoma
  • lymphoma
  • melanoma

Some abnormal areas and growths in the mouth and oropharynx are not cancerous (benign). Sometimes, patches in the mouth contain abnormal cells that can turn into cancer if left untreated. These patches are described as pre cancerous.

Squamous cell cancers of the mouth and oropharynx

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is cancer starting in the squamous cells. These are the flat, skin like cells covering the inside of the mouth, nose, larynx and throat. Carcinoma means cancer. 

More than 90 out of 100 (more than 90%) of all mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are SCC. 

Verrucous carcinoma

This is an unusual type of squamous cell carcinoma. It rarely spreads to other parts of the body but can grow very deeply into surrounding tissues.  

Other types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

Other types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer include the following:

Salivary gland cancer 

There are minor salivary glands throughout the lining of the mouth and oropharynx. It is more common for a lump in this area to be non cancerous (benign). But cancers can develop in these glands. They are mostly a type of cancer called adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinomas are a type of cancer that starts in glandular tissue.

Most salivary gland cancers start in the parotid glands. Around 80 in 100 (around 80%) salivary gland cancers start here. Just over 10 in 100 (just over 10%) start in the submandibular glands. The rest starts in either the sublingual glands or the minor glands.

Diagram showing the position of the salivary glands

Adenoid cystic tumour 

This is a rare type of tumour and can develop from glandular tissue in the salivary glands or the mouth. The parotid gland is the most common place to find this type of cancer. 

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

This is a type of skin cancer that develops from basal cells, and can be found on the lips. 

This is the most common type of skin cancer. About 75 out of every 100 non melanoma skin cancers (about 75%) are BCCs. They are usually treated by surgery. The outlook for this cancer type is very good.  

Lymphoma  

Lymphomas are cancers that start from cells in the lymphatic system. The base of the tongue and tonsils are made up of lymph tissue that can develop into cancer. There are also many lymph nodes in the neck.

Painless swelling of a lymph node is the most common sign of lymphoma. Treatment for lymphoma will be different to treatment for mouth or oropharyngeal cancer. 

Melanoma   

Melanomas develop from the pigment producing cells that give skin its colour. It is not a very common type of mouth or oropharyngeal cancer. Around 1 out of every 100 (around 1%) of oral cavity cancers are melanomas. 

Melanomas of the head and neck can occur anywhere on the skin or inside the nose or mouth (oral cavity).

Some treatments for melanomas in the oral cavity are different to squamous cell cancers. You can read about melanoma treatment in the melanoma section.

Non cancerous growths in the mouth and oropharynx

A growth or tumour is not always a cancer. Non cancerous growths are called benign.

The main difference between a cancer and a benign tumour is that a cancer can spread, while a benign tumour does not. Some mouth and oropharyngeal tumours are benign and so don't spread to other parts of the body.

Precancerous changes in the mouth and oropharynx

Two different medical conditions can cause abnormal areas in the mouth or throat. They are harmless to begin with but if left untreated can turn into a cancer in a small number of people. Doctors call these conditions precancerous. They are:

  • leukoplakia 
  • erythroplakia

What are leukoplakia and erythroplakia

Leukoplakia is a white patch in the mouth. Erythroplakia is a red area in the mouth that bleeds easily. 

Can leukoplakia and erythroplakia turn into cancer?

These patches might be harmless. But they can also be precancerous and contain abnormal cells. These abnormal cells are called dysplasia. Untreated, these might go on to develop into cancer. Patches that contain dysplasia are called precancerous.

Your doctor takes a sample of the cells (biopsy) to find out what the patches are. They look for dysplasia. The information from the biopsy helps them decide who might need treatment.

Precancerous changes are more common in erythroplakia than leukoplakia. Most leukoplakia patches are not precancerous:

What causes leukoplakia and erythroplakia?

The most common causes of leukoplakia and erythroplakia are smoking and chewing tobacco. It can also develop if you have badly fitting dentures that constantly rub your gums, or the inside of your mouth or tongue.

It is important to get regular dental check ups if you have dentures.

People who have long term exposure to infections in the mouth, such as oral thrush may also have a higher risk of getting leukoplakia.

Treatment

You might not need treatment. Your doctor will advise you to stop smoking and drinking alcohol. The patches may go away or get smaller if you stop smoking and reduce how much alcohol you drink.

Regular checks

Patches that have no dysplasia, or mild dysplasia might not need treatment. Your doctor checks the area regularly, sometimes for many years. They look for:

  • changes in the appearance of the patches
  • new patches

 You might need to have more biopsies.  

Surgery and laser treatment

You might need treatment if you have dysplasia. This is because there is a risk that the patches might develop into mouth cancer.  Your doctor might suggest surgery or laser treatment to remove the patches.

More information

To decide what treatment you need your doctor looks at the type, grade and stage of your cancer.

Last reviewed: 
30 May 2022
Next review due: 
30 May 2025
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