Oral Cancer

Oral cancer facts*

*Oral cancer facts medical author:

  • The oral cavity is complex and consists of lips, cheek lining, salivary glands, hard palate, soft palate, uvula, area under the tongue, gums, teach, tongue, and tonsils.
  • Oral cancer is abnormal (malignant) growth of body cells in any part of the oral cavity; oral cancer is sometimes termed head and neck cancer.
  • Risk factors for oral cancer are many; for example, tobacco use alcohol use, sun exposure (lips), anyone who has already had some form of head and neck cancer, and human papilloma virus infection.
  • Symptoms of oral cancer may include red, white and/or a mixture of these colors in patches, a non-healing sore in the mouth or on the lips, bleeding, loose teeth, swallowing problems, new denture problems, lumps or bumps on the neckm, and earaches.
  • Oral cancer is diagnosed by the patient's history and physical exam and definitively by a biopsy of oral tissue; occasionally, CT scans, MRI scans or PET scans may be used.
  • The treatment of oral cancer is usually decided in conjunction with the patient's doctor.
  • Methods of treatment for oral cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy.
  • The side effects of oral cancer treatment may include pain, weakness, altered facial appearance, difficulty in swallowing or chewing food, dry mouth, tooth decay, sore throat, sore gums, bleeding, infections, denture problems, voice quality, thyroid problems, fatigue, hair loss, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Rehabilitation after oral cancer surgery consists of regaining strength, developing a healthy diet the patient can tolerate, and possibly dental implants or facial reconstruction surgery.
  • After treatment and rehabilitation (see above), checkups are needed to maintain health and make sure that the oral cancer does not recur.
  • Oral cancer treatment can result in significant lifestyle changes; most patients are advised to discuss lifestyle problems with professionals such as social workers to help patients get the care they may need.
  • This article provides several methods to discover what support groups are available to oral cancer patients.

What is the oral cavity?

This article is about cancers that occur in the mouth (oral cavity) and the part of the throat at the back of the mouth (oropharynx). The oral cavity and oropharynx have many parts:

  • Lips
  • Lining of your cheeks
  • Salivary glands (glands that make saliva)
  • Roof of your mouth (hard palate)
  • Back of your mouth (soft palate and uvula)
  • Floor of your mouth (area under the tongue)
  • Gums and teeth
  • Tongue
  • Tonsils

What is cancer?

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body.

Normally, cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old, they die, and new cells take their place.

Sometimes this orderly process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old cells do not die when they should. These extra cells can form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor. The kinds of cells found in the tumor determine how the tumor will behave.

Tumors can be benign or malignant:

  • Benign tumors are not cancer:
    • Benign tumors are rarely life-threatening.
    • Generally, benign tumors can be removed, and they usually do not grow back.
    • Cells from benign tumors do not invade the tissues around them.
    • Cells from benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant tumors are cancer:
    • Malignant tumors are generally more serious than benign tumors. They may be life-threatening.
    • Malignant tumors often can be removed, but sometimes they grow back.
    • Cells from malignant tumors can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs.
    • Cells from malignant tumors can spread to other parts of the body. The cells spread by breaking away from the original cancer (primary tumor) and entering the bloodstream or lymphatic system. They invade other organs, forming new tumors and damaging these organs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis.

Oral cancer

Oral cancer is part of a group of cancers called head and neck cancers. Oral cancer can develop in any part of the oral cavity or oropharynx. Most oral cancers begin in the tongue and in the floor of the mouth. Almost all oral cancers begin in the flat cells (squamous cells) that cover the surfaces of the mouth, tongue, and lips. These cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas.

When oral cancer spreads (metastasizes), it usually travels through the lymphatic system. Cancer cells that enter the lymphatic system are carried along by lymph, a clear, watery fluid. The cancer cells often appear first in nearby lymph nodes in the neck.

Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the neck, the lungs, and other parts of the body. When this happens, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells as the primary tumor. For example, if oral cancer spreads to the lungs, the cancer cells in the lungs are actually oral cancer cells. The disease is metastatic oral cancer, not lung cancer. It is treated as oral cancer, not lung cancer. Doctors sometimes call the new tumor "distant" or metastatic disease.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/28/2014

Patient Comments

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Oral Cancer - Symptoms Question: What are the symptoms of your oral cancer?
Oral Cancer - Diagnosis Question: How was your oral cancer diagnosed?
Oral Cancer - Side Effects Question: Oral cancer treatment can make chewing and talking difficult. What side effects have been challenging for you?
Oral Cancer - Treatment Question: What types of treatment or surgery have you had to treat your oral cancer?
Learn about prevention of oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Prevention

Oral cancer is sometimes associated with known risk factors for the disease. Many risk factors can be modified but not all can be avoided.

  • Tobacco and alcohol use: Tobacco use (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco) is responsible for most cases of oral cancer. Alcohol, particularly beer and hard liquor, are associated with an increased risk of developing oral cancer. The risk of developing oral cancer is higher in people who use both tobacco and alcohol. Avoiding or stopping the use of tobacco decreases the risk of oral cancer. It is not known if stopping the use of alcohol decreases the risk of oral cancer.


  • Sun exposure: Exposure to sunlight may increase the risk of lip cancer, which occurs most often on the lower lip. Avoiding the sun and/or using a sunscreenor colored lipstick on the lips may decrease the risk of lip cancer.


  • Other factors: Some studies suggest that being infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) may increase the risk of oral cancer.


  • Chemoprevention: Chemopreventionis the use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to prevent or delay the growth of cancer or to keep it from coming back. Tobacco users who have had oral cancer often develop second cancers in the oral cavity or nearby areas, including the nose, throat, vocal cords, esophagus, and windpipe. Studies of chemoprevention in oral cancer are under way, including chemoprevention of leukoplakia and erythroplakia.

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