What Is Jaw Cancer?

A rare form of head and neck cancer

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Jaw cancer is cancer that has spread from the mouth or oral cavity to the jaw. It can sometimes originate in the jaw, but this is even less common. Experts generally consider jaw cancer a rare form of head and neck cancer, which accounts for about 5% of cancers in the U.S.

Tumors in the jawbone are called odontogenic (relating to teeth formation). They can be either benign or cancerous.

This article reviews the cancerous forms, including types of jaw cancer, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

Doctor examining patient's jaw in hospital

JohnnyGreig / Getty Images

Types of Jaw Cancer

Most types of jaw cancer have spread to the jaw through the tooth sockets, tongue, salivary glands, palate, or floor of the mouth.

Jaw cancer can affect either the lower jaw, called the mandible, or the upper jaw, the maxilla. Most jaw cancers are found in the lower jaw, often in the bone below the back molars. Jaw cancer originates in the jaw in some cases.

Types of jaw cancer include:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Develops in the oral cavity lining and accounts for more than 95% of jaw cancers
  • Primary intraosseous carcinoma: Squamous cell carcinoma that develops in the bone rather than tissues of the mouth
  • Osteosarcoma: Develops in the jawbone, but accounts for just 1% of all head and neck cancers
  • Multiple myeloma: Originates in the blood
  • Clear cell odontogenic carcinoma: Named after the cell's appearance (arises from tooth-forming tissues)
  • Ghost cell odontogenic carcinoma: Develops in cells without nuclei that line tissues, called epithelial cells
  • Fibrosarcoma: Usually affects fibrous tissue but can develop in bone
  • Ameloblastic carcinoma: Begins in tooth enamel lining and spreads to the mandible
  • Sclerosing odontogenic carcinoma: A hardening primary carcinoma of the bone
  • Odontogenic sarcomas: Cancer in the connective tissue
  • Odontogenic carcinosarcoma: Cancer in both connective tissue and tissue lining

Carcinomas vs. Sarcomas

Carcinomas are cancers in the cells of the skin or tissues that line the organs. Sarcomas are cancers of the bones, fat, blood vessels, nerves, muscles, or other connective tissues.

Jaw Cancer Symptoms

A person may not have symptoms in the early stages of jaw cancer, but they may have symptoms of other oral cancers, which include white patches, sores, and bleeding.

If it progresses in the jaw, some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Pain or difficulty when swallowing
  • Difficulty opening the mouth
  • Jaw or ear pain
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Change in the fit of dentures
  • Loose teeth
  • Lump in neck glands

Causes

Since jaw cancer is considered a head and neck cancer, it shares some of the same causes or risk factors.

The cause of jaw cancer is not always known, but there are several factors involved, including:

  • Tobacco use: The most common cause of oral cancer
  • Heavy alcohol use: Associated with squamous cell jaw cancer
  • Betel nut use: Oral cancer linked to chewing the nut from the Areca palm tree
  • Obesity: Raises the risk for all head and neck cancers
  • Poor oral care: May be a contributing factor for oral cancer
  • Poor nutrition: Lack of fruit and vegetables associated with head and neck cancer
  • Viruses: Infections including HPV 16 increase risk of oral cancers

Diagnosis

If you are experiencing symptoms of jaw cancer, reach out to a healthcare provider for an examination of your jaw or mouth to look for lumps. Because jaw cancer is often associated with other head and neck cancers, they may also examine your throat, nose, and the lymph nodes behind your neck.

If the provider suspects jaw cancer, they can order a biopsy, which is a small sample of tissue that can be examined in a lab for cancer cells.

If the lab detects cancer cells in the sample, your provider can order imaging studies like an MRI or CT scan to pinpoint the location and extent of tumors. Imaging will also help identify the stage or grade of the cancer, which determines the treatment recommendations.

Treatment

Treatment for jaw cancer depends on the location and extent of the cancer. It may include a combination of approaches.

Surgery

Healthcare providers can remove cancerous tissue and some of the surrounding area through surgery.

Surgical removal of tumors is more common in earlier stages of jaw cancer. After the cancerous areas are removed, reconstructive surgery can help restore function and address matters of appearance.

There are three main surgical approaches for jaw cancer:

  • Segmental mandibulectomy: Removes a significant portion of the jaw. Providers can take bone from another part of the body, usually the leg, hip, or shoulder blade, to graft onto the remaining bone. They can also use bone from a human donor or a metal plate.
  • Marginal mandibulectomy: Removal of just a part of the lower jaw.
  • Maxillectomy: Removes part or all of the upper jaw. Specialists can create a prosthetic to replace the bone. They may also use a skin or muscle graft to aid reconstruction.

After surgery, occupational therapists can provide rehabilitative or occupational therapy to help people adjust to reconstruction of a prosthesis to help regain function.

Radiation Therapy

Using high-powered energy waves, radiation therapy can kill any remaining cancer cells or cancer in places that couldn't be reached during surgery. It can also help prevent cancer from coming back.

Radiation therapy can be performed by a machine, which is called external radiation, or from implants placed near a tumor.

Sometimes implants can be used instead of surgery, which can speed recovery, but not every patient is a candidate for this form of radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is not usually a standard treatment for jaw cancer, but if the cancer has spread to other tissues, providers may recommend it.

Prognosis

Survival rates for jaw cancer are grouped with other oral cancers. When caught in early stages, 85% of people diagnosed with oral cancers survive up to five years. Overall, more than 66% survive more than 5 years.

It's important to remember that statistics don't represent the outcome of any individual case. Prognosis depends on many factors, including how early the cancer was detected, the location, and the extent of the cancer.

Summary

Jaw cancer is rare and generally considered to be a form of head and neck or, more specifically, oral cancer. Tobacco, alcohol use, poor oral hygiene, and poor nutrition are risk factors for developing these kinds of cancers.

Depending on how advanced the cancer is, treatment includes surgery, radiation therapy, and possibly chemotherapy. Reconstructive surgery, prosthetics, and rehabilitation can help address the challenges of jaw surgery if a significant portion of the jaw is removed.

Early detection is important, but there may be few symptoms in the early stages of jaw cancer. The prognosis typically depends on the extent of the cancer and where it is located.

A Word From Verywell

You can lower your risk of developing an oral cancer like jaw cancer by knowing and addressing risk factors. Dentists, as well as other providers, can screen for oral cancers during check-ups. Ask about a screening the next time you go in for a visit.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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