Key Points about Oral Cancer 

  • Many people who develop oral cancer have used some type of tobacco products, so the best prevention measure is not to start using tobacco products or quit immediately.
  • Oral cancer is diagnosed through physical exam and biopsy.
  • Oral cancer is staged using imaging tests or endoscopy.

Overview

Oral cancer is cancer that occurs in any part of the mouth, which includes the lips, gums, tongue, lining of cheeks, the roof of mouth and floor of the mouth (under your tongue). Oral cancer is also known as mouth cancer.

Oral cancer causes 

This type of cancer occurs when cells of the mouth receive a mutation in their DNA, which causes them to turn into abnormal cells and multiply rapidly. 

Oral cancer risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk for developing oral cancer include:

  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Excessive sun exposure to the lips
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Having human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Using any type of tobacco product, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff

Oral cancer symptoms

Symptoms of oral cancer can include:

  • Growth or lump inside the mouth
  • Lip or mouth sore that won’t heal
  • Loose teeth
  • Pain in the ear
  • Pain in the mouth
  • Trouble swallowing
  • White or red patch on the inside of the mouth

Oral cancer diagnosis

Your specialist may recommend one or more of the following tests to diagnose oral cancer:

  • Physical exam. Your doctor will perform a comprehensive physical exam to check for signs of oral cancer, such as sores and white patches (leukoplakia).
  • Biopsy. Your specialist will remove a small tissue sample (biopsy) for closer analysis in the lab.
  • Imaging tests. Once diagnosed, your doctor may order an imaging test – such as computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) scan – to stage cancer and help determine your optimal course of treatment. 
  • Endoscopy. Your specialist uses a thin, flexible tube (endoscope) with a camera attached to look down your throat and determine if oral cancer has spread to other areas.

Oral cancer treatment

Treatment for oral cancer may include one or more of the following options:

  • Surgery. Your specialist removes the cancerous cells in your mouth or lymph nodes that contain cancerous cells. Depending on the extent of cancer, this could include surgical reconstruction of your mouth.
  • Radiation therapy. This treatment uses high-energy beams – such as X-ray or protons – to destroy cancer cells. People typically have to undergo several rounds of radiation therapy treatment for results.
  • Chemotherapy. This treatment involves using medications – either oral (by mouth) or intravenous (by vein) – to destroy cancer cells.

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.