Key Points about Mouth Cancer

  • Mouth cancer is cancer that begins in the cells of the mouth.
  • Doctors use imaging tests, physical exams and biopsy to diagnose mouth cancer.
  • Treatment for mouth cancer may involve surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

Overview 

Mouth cancer is when abnormal cells begin to grow out of control anywhere in the mouth. Mouth cancer can start in the:

  • Gums
  • Inside of the cheeks
  • Lips
  • Roof of the mouth
  • Tongue
  • Floor the the mouth (under the tongue)

Mouth cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Mouth cancer causes

Mouth cancer is caused when cells of the mouth have mutations (changes) to their DNA. Experts don’t yet understand why these mutations occur.

Mouth cancer risk factors

Factors that can increase your risk for developing mouth cancer are:

  • Drinking a large amount of alcohol
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Having excessive sun exposure to your lips
  • Having human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Using tobacco of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco or pipes

Mouth cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of mouth cancer can include:

  • A lip or mouth sore that won’t heal
  • A white or red patch on the inside of your mouth
  • Growth or lump inside your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Pain in your ear
  • Pain in your mouth
  • Trouble swallowing, or pain while swallowing

Mouth cancer diagnosis

Your doctor may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam - your doctor will perform a complete physical exam – including asking questions about your health history, your symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Biopsy - during this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small sample of tissue) from your mouth. This biopsy is sent to the laboratory for close analysis and to determine if there are any abnormalities.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan - your doctor may order a CT scan of your mouth and surrounding areas. This specialized imaging test uses a series of X-ray images to create detailed images of the inside of your body. This can help your doctor determine if the cancer has spread beyond your mouth.
  • Ultrasound - your doctor may order an ultrasound, an imaging test that uses sound waves to create detailed images of your mouth and surrounding areas. This can help your doctor determine if the cancer has spread beyond your mouth.

Mouth cancer treatments

Depending on your personal health history, stage of the mouth cancer and other factors, the doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Chemotherapy - this treatment uses medications taken orally (by mouth) or intravenously (by vein) to destroy cancerous cells.
  • Radiation therapy - during this treatment, your oncologist uses high-energy beams or rays to destroy cancerous cells. Radiation therapy may be used after you’ve undergone surgery to remove any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed during surgery.
  • Surgery - your oncologist may recommend a surgical procedure to remove the cancerous cells, along with a margin of healthy tissue. Depending on the extent of your mouth cancer and the surgery to remove the cancer, you may need to also undergo reconstructive surgery.
  • Targeted drug therapy - this treatment uses medications to attack specific abnormalities within cancerous cells, with the goal of destroying them.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment. 

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