What Is Jaw Cancer?

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Cancer rarely starts in the jaw. Sometimes, cysts or growths form in the jaw area, called odontogenic tumors, but most often, these tumors are benign (noncancerous).

In general, cancer of the jawbone, considered true jaw cancer, is quite rare. However, cancers arising from the floor of the mouth (front and back), the salivary glands, the base of the tongue, the tonsils, and the palate can rapidly involve the lower jaw (mandible) and upper jaw (maxilla).

In this article, we will look at the types of jaw cancer, symptoms, causes, how the disease is diagnosed, and treatment options that are available.

Doctor examining patient's jaw in hospital

JohnnyGreig/Getty Images

Types of Jaw Cancer

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the most common malignant tumor in the oral cavity (mouth), and it accounts for about 90% of all oral cancers. But SCC of the jaw is rare, accounting for only 6% of cancers in the head and neck.

Other types of cancer may also affect the jaw:

  • Osteosarcoma (a rare type of bone cancer that typically affects long bones in the arms and legs)
  • Multiple myeloma (a rare incurable cancer of the blood)
  • Metastatic tumors (cancer that has spread from another part of the body)

Jaw Cancer Symptoms

In the early stages of jaw cancer, you may experience just pain or no symptoms at all.

As the cancer grows, you may experience additional signs and symptoms, including:

  • Painful sores, or ulcers, in your mouth
  • A red or white patch in your mouth
  • Loose teeth or pain around your teeth
  • Dentures that no longer fit
  • Swelling inside your mouth near your jaw or on the side of your face
  • Difficulty opening your mouth
  • Numbness in the lower teeth or lower lip and chin area
  • Difficulty speaking
  • A lump in your neck

There are many noncancerous dental conditions that are more likely than jaw cancer to cause these symptoms. Tell your dentist or primary care provider if you have experienced the above symptoms for more than two weeks.

Causes

While the exact cause of jaw cancer is unclear, there are risk factors that can contribute to developing the disease.

These include:

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, which all increase your risk of cancer anywhere in the mouth, jaw, or throat
  • Using oral tobacco products, like snuff, dip, spit, chew, or dissolving tobacco, which are linked to cancers of the cheek, gums, and the inner surface of the lips (The longer the use, the higher the risk.)
  • Drinking alcohol, which increases your risk of developing oral cavity cancers (Moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption is associated with higher risks of certain head and neck cancers. Moderate drinkers have a 1.8-fold higher risks of oral cavity and throat cancers than nondrinkers.)
  • Eating a diet deficient in fruits and vegetables
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Chewing betel quid, a stimulant drug that's ingested like chewing tobacco and often mixed with tobacco
  • Poor dentition
  • History of syphilis

Oropharynx cancer (which occurs in the part of the throat directly behind the mouth) is the type of cancer commonly associated with human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is rarely associated with jaw cancer.

Diagnosis

If you have symptoms of jaw cancer, you should see your primary care physician or dentist. If they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they may refer you to a specialist, such as a head and neck surgeon (otolaryngologist).

The doctor will perform a thorough exam, looking for any abnormal areas or enlarged lymph nodes. If suspicious areas are seen during the exam, a tissue sample is removed for further examination in a lab (biopsy). If cancer cells are found, the stage of the disease (the size and location of the cancer and how far it has spread) is then determined.

Cancer staging for jaw cancer can involve:

  • An X-ray to check the bones in your face and neck and the health of your teeth
  • A CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan to see if the cancer has spread to other organs

The stage of the cancer describes the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread (metastasized). This helps doctors determine the best course of treatment.

Treatment

Different treatments might be used either alone or in combination, depending on the stage and location of the tumor. In general, surgery is the first treatment for cancers of the oral cavity and may be followed by radiation therapy or combined chemotherapy and radiation. 

Surgery

For jaw cancer, surgical removal of the tumor is almost always part of the treatment plan, unless a doctor decides that surgery is not possible or that you are too unwell to proceed with surgery. 

Most surgeries involve removing the affected area of soft tissue (tongue, floor of the mouth, tonsils, part of the pharynx), along with the adjacent bone. Usually, a lymph node is removed on the same side of the neck, as well.

In rare cases, often in patients with advanced cancer, more intensive surgeries may be needed. These surgeries include:

  • Maxillectomy (partial or total): Removal of the bone that forms the roof of the mouth
  • Mandibulectomy (partial or total): Removal of a part or all of the jawbone

Most patients undergoing stage 3 and stage 4 cancers will also have a temporary tracheotomy (a tube inserted into the windpipe via a small incision in the neck to facilitate breathing) while they recover.

Depending on the location and extent of the original surgery, further reconstructive surgeries may be needed. These may include bone, muscle, or skin grafts, or flap procedures

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays or particles to destroy cancer cells or slow their growth, may be necessary in treating jaw cancer.

The most common use of radiation for the treatment of jaw cancer is called adjuvant radiation, which is radiation given after surgery in order to decrease the chances that the tumor will come back.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy, medicine used to kill cancer, is not a common treatment for jaw cancer. In some cases, it is used in combination with radiation as an additional treatment following surgery. Chemotherapy is usually only added to adjuvant radiation therapy if cancer has grown outside of the lymph nodes or if there is cancer left behind during surgery. 

Prognosis

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) does not hold data specifically for jaw cancer, as the condition is quite rare. But for cancers of the gums and other parts of the mouth, the relative survival rate is 60%.

The earlier jaw cancer is caught, the better chance a person has of surviving five years after being diagnosed.

Summary

It is rare for cancer to start in the jaw. However, if you are experiencing swelling, pain, difficulty opening your mouth, and numbness in your lower mouth, speak to your dentist. The earlier this type of cancer is caught, the more effective treatment will be.

A Word From Verywell

The greatest preventable risk factor for oral cancers (including jaw cancer) is tobacco. Speak to your healthcare provider about smoking cessation programs if you are looking to quit smoking and using smokeless tobacco products.

Many of the symptoms of jaw cancer can be caused by noncancerous conditions, but they should still be checked out by your dentist, especially if you are a smoker or drink a moderate-to-heavy amount of alcohol.

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8 Sources
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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