Oral cancer (mouth cancer) is the most common form of head and neck cancer. It typically affects people age 60 and older. Oral cancer affects your lips and the first parts of your tongue, mouth roof and floor. It also affects your oropharynx — the last part of your tongue and roof of your mouth, your tonsils and the sides and back of your throat.
Oral cancer (mouth cancer) is the broad term for cancer that affects the inside of your mouth. Oral cancer can look like a common problem with your lips or in your mouth, like white patches or sores that bleed. The difference between a common problem and potential cancer is these changes don’t go away. Left untreated, oral cancer can spread throughout your mouth and throat to other areas of your head and neck. Approximately 63% of people with oral cavity cancer are alive five years after diagnosis.
Overall, about 11 people in 100,000 will develop oral cancer during their lifetime. Men are more likely than women to develop oral cancer. People who are white are more likely to develop oral cancer than people who are Black.
Oral cancer can affect your mouth and your oropharynx. Your oropharynx includes parts of your tongue and the roof of your mouth and the middle part of your throat that’s visible when your mouth is wide open. Cancer in your oropharynx is called oropharyngeal cancer. This article focuses on oral cancer in your mouth, or oral cavity.
Your oral cavity includes:
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Oral cancer starts in the squamous cells in your oral cavity. Squamous cells are flat and, when viewed under a microscope, look like a fish scale.
Normal squamous cells become cancerous when their DNA changes and cells begin growing and multiplying. Over time, these cancerous cells can spread to other areas inside of your mouth and then to other areas of your head and neck or other areas of your body.
About 75% of people who develop oral cancer have the following habits:
It’s important to note that 25% of people who develop oral cancer don’t smoke or have other known risk factors.
Oral cancer has several signs and symptoms that may be mistaken for common problems or changes in your mouth. For example, you may notice patches inside of your mouth that you can’t scrape away. These patches may be pre-cancerous conditions.
The following conditions all appear as patches in your mouth and throat, but they’re different colors:
Common signs and symptoms of oral cancer include:
Your dentist may spot potential oral cancer during one of your regular checkups. They may follow up with preliminary tests or refer you to an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, or head and neck surgeon. These specialists are also called ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists.
Oral cancer tests include:
Diagnostic tests help determine a cancer’s stage. A stage describes a cancer’s location, if a cancer has grown, or penetrated the surface of the area where it was found. Tests also check to see if the cancer has moved to other areas in your body.
Healthcare providers use staging information to recommend treatment and help predict chances of recovery.
Oral cancers are staged using the TNM system. T stands for the size and location of the primary tumor. N indicates if the tumor has spread to your lymph nodes. M indicates if the tumor has metastasized, or spread to other areas of your body.
The stages for oral cavity cancer are:
The three main treatment options for oral (mouth) are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Talk to your doctor about the purpose, side effects and ways to manage side effects for all of your options.
Your healthcare provider considers several factors before recommending treatment. Those factors include:
The most common surgeries for oral cancer are:
Healthcare providers may combine surgery with other treatments, including:
Oral cancer can be prevented, and you can play an active role in preventing it. You can help prevent oral cancer with the following tips:
Detecting oral cancer early can reduce the chance the cancer will grow or spread. You can detect oral cancer early by doing a monthly self-examination. If you spot changes or something unusual, contact your dentist immediately. Here’s how to examine your mouth, throat and neck for signs of oral cancer:
Oral cancer includes cancer in your mouth. Like most forms of cancer, early diagnosis and treatment improve the chance that oral cancer will spread. Approximately 1/3 of people treated for oral cancer develop new a cancer. If you’ve been treated for oral cancer, talk to your healthcare provider about follow-up examinations.
If you’ve been treated for oral cancer, your healthcare provider will share information on how your specific treatment may affect your day-to-day life.
For example, some peoples’ oral cancer is successfully treated by removing the tumor from their lip or mouth. But someone whose oral cancer has spread will have had different and more extensive surgery that may involve reconstructing part of their mouth or jaw.
Regardless of your situation, you may need regular follow-up appointments with your healthcare providers, including your dentist.
You should contact your healthcare provider any time you notice changes in your mouth such as new persistent sores or rough spots that don’t go away after two weeks.
Some general questions you might ask your healthcare provider include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic:
Oral cancer is a serious illness that if caught early on can be treated successfully. That’s why it’s important you try to see your dentist twice a year and make time to do a monthly self-examination. There are ways to prevent oral cancer, and one of the most important is to avoid using tobacco products. A cancer diagnosis can be scary. Know you don’t have to go it alone, though. Talk to your healthcare providers about resources to help you talk to your friends and family about your oral cancer.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/27/2022.
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