What Are the First Signs of Gum Cancer?

Medically Reviewed on 5/4/2021

Gum cancer is a type of oral cancer. It begins when the cells in the gum grow out of control.
Gum cancer is a type of oral cancer. It begins when the cells in the gum grow out of control.

This uncontrolled growth gives rise to a mass that eventually damages the healthy tissue.

The first signs of gum cancer are similar to those seen in gingivitis. Hence, initially, gum cancer can be dismissed as a common sore or gingivitis.

If a person has gum cancer, they may have a non-healing sore. This sore stays for a long time and does not go away with the standard treatments given for an oral ulcer or sore. The sore may be white, pale, red, black, dark or discolored. There could also be a lump or swelling that does not subside in two weeks. Other symptoms are

  • Bleeding gums
  • Cracking of the gums
  • Altered sense of taste
  • Difficulty eating
  • Loosening of the teeth
  • Gum pain
  • Swollen or thickened gums

Unexplained weight loss and swollen lymph nodes in the neck may also be signs of oral cancer.

What causes gum cancer?

Gum cancer refers to the uncontrolled division of the cell that begins in the gum. This happens when there is a mutation in the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This causes the DNA to malfunction. The DNA is the genetic code that instructs the cells when to divide, grow or die. If the DNA that controls the cells of the gum malfunctions, cells divide and grow excessively. Also, they fail to die at the expected rate. This causes a buildup of cells in the gum that leads to harmful (malignant) gum cancer.

What exactly causes the mutation is unknown. However, certain factors can increase the risk of developing it. Out of all the risk factors, tobacco consumption (smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes or chewing tobacco) is the most common one. The risk for developing oral cancer is three times higher in smokers than in nonsmokers. Even in people exposed to second-hand smoking, the risk of oral cancer increases. Their risk is almost 87 percent higher than those who have never smoked and who have never been exposed. Other risk factors include


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How is gum cancer treated?

Early diagnosis makes gum cancer highly curable. Often, the lesions are noticed during a visit to the dentist. Hence, it is advisable to make regular follow-ups to the dentist, especially when a person is at risk.

Head and neck cancer surgeon often treat gum cancer by any of the surgeries:

  • Maxillectomy (surgery to remove cancer in the upper jaw or roof of the mouth)
  • Mandibulectomy (surgery to remove cancer around the lower jaw or mandible)

If the gum cancer has spread to lymph nodes present in the neck, a surgery known as neck dissection may be performed. This involves removing the lymph nodes, which have become cancerous or are most likely to develop cancer.

Other treatments used in gum cancer include radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves that target the cancerous part of the gum. It is often used before or after the surgery to shrink the tumor. Chemotherapy involves using anticancer drugs that destroy the cancerous cells. This may be used with or without radiation therapy after surgery.

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Medically Reviewed on 5/4/2021
Sankaranarayanan R, Ramadas K, Amarasinghe H, et al. Oral Cancer: Prevention, Early Detection, and Treatment. In: Gelband H, Jha P, Sankaranarayanan R, et al., editors. Cancer: Disease Control Priorities, 3rd Edition (Volume 3). The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank; Nov 1, 2015. Chapter 5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK343649/

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Gum Cancer. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/types/mouth/types-mouth/gum