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VCU Massey Cancer Center


Types of oral cancer

What are the different types of oral cancer?

Oral tumors can develop anywhere in the oral cavity and oropharynx. Some tumors are benign (noncancerous), some may be precancerous (a condition that may become cancerous), while others may be cancerous. Different types of oral cancer may develop in different areas of the mouth and throat.

What are benign tumors?

There are many forms of benign (noncancerous) tumors that can appear in the oral cavity or oropharynx (in addition to other sites in/on the body), including:


Condyloma acuminatum (also known as a genital warts)

A small, moist, pink or red growth that grows alone or in cauliflower-like clusters.

Eosinophilic granuloma

A benign tumor that most often affects children and adolescents and is usually found in a bone or the lungs.


A benign tumor consisting of fibrous connective tissues.


A flesh-colored, fast-growing bump on the skin with a keratin plug in the center (keratin, the main component of the external layer of skin, hair and nails, is a tough substance).


A tumor of the smooth muscle, often found in the esophagus, small intestine, uterus or stomach.


A tumor made up of mature fat cells.


A fibrous tumor consisting of nerve tissue.

Odontogenic tumors

Tumors in the jaw.


A tumor made up of bone and cartilage.


A tumor that resembles a wart, growing on the epithelium (the cells that form the skin and mucous membranes).

Pyogenic granuloma

A small, round bump that often has an ulcerated surface.


A striated-muscle tumor that may appear on the tongue, pharynx, uterus, vagina or heart.


A single tumor that grows in the neurilemma (Schwann’s sheath) of nerves.

Verruca form xanthoma

Wart-shaped tumors.

Some benign tumors disappear on their own. Others may have to be removed surgically. Most benign tumors do not recur. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

What oral conditions may be precancerous?

Two conditions in the mouth — leukoplakia and erythroplakia — actually can be precursors to cancer. Often caused by smoking or chewing tobacco, these (initially) benign conditions can occur anywhere in the mouth. Only a biopsy can determine whether precancerous cells (dysplasia) or cancer cells are present in a leukoplakia or erythroplakia.

  • Leukoplakia – a condition characterized by a whitish patch that develops inside the mouth or throat.
  • Erythroplakia – a condition characterized by a red, raised patch that develops inside the mouth.

Treatment for leukoplakias or erythroplakias may include use of retinoids — medications that are related to vitamin A — to eliminate, reduce and/or prevent dysplasia from forming.

What are malignant oral tumors?

Although there are several types of malignant oral cancers, more than 90 percent of all diagnosed oral cancers are squamous cell carcinoma.


Squamous cell carcinoma

Also known as squamous cell cancer, this type of cancer originates in the squamous cell layer in the lining of the oral cavity and oropharynx. In the early stages, this cancer is present only in the lining layer of cells (called carcinoma in situ). When the cancer spreads beyond the lining, it is called invasive squamous cell cancer.

Verrucous carcinoma

Although also considered a type of squamous cell carcinoma, this low-grade cancer rarely metastasizes (spreads to distant sites). Comprising less than 5 percent of all diagnosed oral cancers, verrucous carcinoma can spread deeply into surrounding tissue, requiring surgical removal with a wide margin of surrounding tissue.

Minor salivary gland cancers

The lining of the oral cavity and oropharynx contains numerous salivary glands. Sometimes cancer will originate in a salivary gland. Treatment depends on the type and location of the salivary gland cancer, as well as the extent of spreading. According to the American Cancer Society, salivary gland cancers account for less than 1 percent of all cancers.

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