Mouth Cancer


Learn more about the early warning signs of mouth cancer.

A sore or growth in the mouth that doesn’t go away is the most common early sign of mouth cancer. Also referred to as oral cancer, mouth cancer can affect tissues in the lips, tongue, parts of the nasal cavity and the sinuses, inner linings of cheeks, the roof and floor of the mouth, the hard and soft palate, and parts of the throat.

  • If detected early, most forms of mouth cancer are treatable.
  • Because treatment approaches are similar, mouth cancer is often categorized with head and neck cancers.

Causes, Risk Factors, and Symptoms

Many instances of oral cancer are linked to alcohol and tobacco use. Poor oral hygiene, HPV (human papillomavirus) infections, excessive consumption of salty or preserved foods, and exposure to airborne particles such as asbestos and wood and nickel dust are among other possible sources of mouth cancer. Patients with an Epstein-Barr infection or those who are of Chinese descent may also be at an increased risk of developing oral cancer. Patients with mouth cancer often have sores that aren’t healing or ones that are bleeding. In some cases, skin in or around the mouth may develop lumps or become thicker. Some patients may also notice symptoms that include:

  • Loose teeth
  • Dentures that suddenly don’t fit right
  • Tongue pain
  • Jaw stiffness or pain
  • Sore throats with no clear cause
  • Pain associated with chewing or swallowing

Diagnosing Mouth Cancer

An ear, nose, and throat specialist will first examine abnormalities in or around the mouth, such as visible sores, white patches (leukoplakia) and areas where there’s irritation or inflammation. Suspicious tissue is usually cut away with a procedure called a biopsy and tested in a laboratory to determine if it’s cancer. Diagnosis sometimes involves an endoscopy, a procedure done with a small camera attached to a special device to examine the throat to determine if the disease has spread beyond the mouth. X-rays, PET and CT scans, and MRIs may also be done in some situations. Tests of this nature can also help identify the specific stage of a patient’s oral cancer.

Treatment Options

Early stages of mouth cancer are often treated with targeted drug therapy to alter certain aspects of the affected cells and protect healthy cells. Some patients benefit from a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, since chemotherapy sometimes enhances the effects of radiation therapy. Nausea, vomiting, and hair loss are the common side effects associated with these treatments.

Surgery for Mouth Cancer

Advanced forms of mouth cancer may require surgery. The most common option is tumor removal. Removing a cancerous growth in the mouth usually includes removing nearby tissues that could be affected. With larger tumors, part of the tongue and/or jaw may need to be removed. If cancer has spread from the mouth to the throat, lymph nodes that are affected may need to be taken out. When significant parts of the mouth have to be removed to access the tumor, surgery may be needed to restore the mouth’s appearance and function. Some patients may also need dental implants.

More common in men than women, oral cancer isn’t always preventable. However, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco products, using lip balm with SPF, brushing and flossing regularly and having good oral hygiene, and eating foods that keep the immune system healthy may minimize the risk of developing mouth cancer.