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.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/28/2014

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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.