- Cancer 101 Slideshow
- Cancer Symptoms Women Ignore Slideshow
- Cancer Symptoms Men Ignore Slideshow
- Patient Comments: Oral Cancer - Symptoms
- Patient Comments: Oral Cancer - Diagnosis
- Find a local Oncologist in your town
- Oral cancer facts*
- What is the oral cavity?
- What is cancer?
- Who's at risk for oral cancer?
- What are the symptoms of oral cancer?
- How is oral cancer diagnosed?
- How is oral cancer treated?
- Methods of treatment
- What are the side effects of treatment for oral cancer?
- What is rehabilitation for oral cancer?
- What happens after treatment for oral cancer?
- What does the future hold for patients with oral cancer?
- What resources are available to patients with oral cancer?
Quick GuideDental Health: Top Problems in Your Mouth
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:
- 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
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 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.