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.

The survival rate of most types of oral cancer seems to be poor if diagnosed at the later stages. In 2022, 9,750 deaths due to oral cancer are estimated to occur in the United States, which roughly equals one person dying per hour each day (24 hours per day).

  • The survival rate at five years from diagnosis has been improved to 57 percent over 50 percent in the last decade.
  • The survival rate of early-stage untreated oral cancer is 30 percent for five years, whereas for an untreated stage IV oral cancer, the survival rate is 12 percent. Hence, detecting oral cancer in its early stage is essential to prevent the spread of cancer.

The five-year survival rates of the oral cavity and pharynx cancer, according to the National Cancer Institutes, are as follows:

Table. The five-year survival rate of the oral cavity and pharynx cancer
Survival rate percentage Location of cancer
83 percent Localized cancer (that hasn’t spread to lymph nodes)
64 percent Cancer that’s spread to nearby lymph nodes
38 percent Cancer that’s spread to other parts of the body

What are the reasons for the low survival rate of gum cancer?

Reasons for a low survival rate of gum cancer seem to be as follows:

  • Unawareness of the symptoms
  • Identifying cancer at its last stage
  • Oral cancer due to HPV16 is prone to treatment failure
  • Does not produce significant symptoms
  • Symptoms are mistaken for oral sores or ulcers
  • Low oral hygiene

What are the first signs of gum cancer?

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, or it may recur. The sore may be white, pale, red, black, dark, or discolored. Moreover, there could be a lump or swelling that does not subside in two weeks.

Other symptoms include:

  • 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 be signs of oral cancer.


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What causes gum cancer?

Gum cancer refers to the uncontrolled division of the cell that begins in the gum. This occurs when there is a mutation in the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This causes the DNA to malfunction. 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. Additionally, 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. Of all the risk factors, tobacco consumption (smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chewing tobacco) is the most common one. The risk of oral cancer is three times higher in smokers than in nonsmokers. The risk of oral cancer increases and is almost 87 percent higher in people exposed to secondhand smoking than in those who have never smoked and who have never been exposed.

Other risk factors include:

How is gum cancer treated?

Early diagnosis makes gum cancer highly curable and gives a better chance of survival. Often, the lesions are noticed during a visit to the dentist. Hence, it is advisable to make regular follow-ups to the dentist, irrespective of the history and risk factors.

Head and neck cancer surgeons often treat gum cancer by any of the following 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 gum cancer has spread to lymph nodes present in the neck, the surgeon may perform a surgery known as neck dissection, which involves removing the lymph nodes that 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 anti-cancer drugs that destroy the cancerous cells. This may be used with or without radiation therapy after surgery.

4 types of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer refers to malignant tumors that originate in or around the:

  • Throat
  • Larynx
  • Nose
  • Sinuses
  • Mouth

Four types of head and neck cancer based on the location of the tumor include:

  1. Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer originates in the larynx or lower part of the larynx called the hypopharynx.
  2. Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer originate in the nasal cavity or the air-filled areas surrounding the nasal cavity.
  3. Oral and oropharyngeal cancer originates in the oral cavity including the mouth and tongue and the oropharynx area that includes the middle of the throat, from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box.
  4. Salivary gland cancer originates in the salivary gland that secretes saliva.

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Medically Reviewed on 5/24/2022
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.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Gum Cancer.