Oral Cancer

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer can occur in the oral cavity (mouth) as well as in the oropharynx (the part of the throat at the back of the mouth). Like all organs of the body, the mouth and throat are made up of many kinds of cells. Oral cancer happens when malignant (abnormal) cells invade and damage tissues and organs in the mouth, including the:

  • Oropharynx
  • Lips
  • Buccal mucosa (the lining inside the lips and cheeks)
  • Teeth
  • Bottom (floor) of the mouth under the tongue
  • Tongue
  • Bony top of the mouth (hard palate)
  • Gums
  • Salivary glands

Risk Factors of Oral Cancer

Usually, oral cancer occurs in people over the age of 45. In addition to age, these are some of the risk factors for oral cancer:

  • Tobacco use. This is one of the known causes of oral cancer. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; chewing tobacco; or dipping snuff accounts for 80 to 90 percent of oral cancers. Evidence suggests that smokeless tobacco users are at a greater risk of developing oral cancer. Pipe smokers are especially prone to cancer of the lip.
  • Alcohol use. Chronic and/or heavy use of alcohol also increases the risk of oral cancer. People who smoke and drink alcohol are at an especially high risk for developing oral cancer.
  • Exposure to the sun. Cancer of the lip can result from exposure to the sun. The risk can be reduced by using a lotion or lip balm the contains sunscreen.
  • History of leukoplakia. Studies have shown that people who have leukoplakia (a whitish patch inside the mouth) have a higher risk of developing oral cancer. This condition is often associated with heavy users of tobacco and alcohol. Early diagnosis and treatment of leukoplakia is crucial, because cancer may develop in these patches.
  • History of erythroplakia. Erythroplakia is a red patch that appears in the mouth. This condition usually occurs in people 60 to 70 years of age. Early diagnosis and treatment of erythroplakia is crucial, because cancer may develop in these patches.

Common Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Here are some symptoms to watch for:

  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
  • A lump on the lip or in the mouth or throat
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
  • Unusual bleeding, pain, or numbness in the mouth
  • A sore throat that does not go away, or a feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty or pain with chewing or swallowing
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • A change in the voice
  • Pain in the ear

If you experience any of these symptoms, see your dentist or your doctor, so that the problem can be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Diagnosing Oral Cancer

Regular checkups by your doctor and dentist that include an examination of the tissues in your mouth can detect precancerous conditions or the early stages of oral cancer. If an abnormal area has been found in the oral cavity, here are some of the tests that you could expect to diagnose the condition:

Treatment Options for Oral Cancer

Your doctor will develop a treatment plan to best fit your needs. The treatment plan for oral cancer depends on several factors such as the location, size, type and the stage of the disease.

Below are the most common treatment options for oral cancer.

Information about…Our services
SurgerySurgical Oncology
Radiation therapyRadiation Oncology
ChemotherapyHematology Oncology

Additional Resources

Find out about our clinical trials for:

Oral Cancer

National cancer clinical trials

Our Specialists

Yuhchyau Chen M.D., Ph.D.

Kishan Pandya, M.D.

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