Back to Oncology Diseases
Oral cancer involves abnormal, cancer tissue growth in the mouth.
Causes of oral cancer
Oral or mouth cancer most commonly involves the tissue of the lips
or the tongue. It may also occur on the floor of the mouth, cheek
lining, gingiva (gums), or palate (roof of the mouth). Most oral
cancers look very similar under the microscope and are called squamous
cell carcinomas. These are malignant and tend to spread rapidly.
The exact cause is unknown. Smoking and other tobacco use are
associated with 70 percent to 80 percent of oral cancer cases. Smoke
and heat from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes irritate the mucous
membranes of the mouth. Use of chewing tobacco or snuff causes
irritation from direct contact with the mucous membranes. Heavy
alcohol use is another high-risk activity associated with oral cancer.
Other risks include poor dental and oral hygiene and chronic
irritation (such as that from rough teeth, dentures, or fillings).
Some oral cancers begin as leukoplakia or mouth ulcers. Oral cancer
accounts for about 8 percent of all malignant growths. Men are
affected twice as often as women, particularly men older than 40.
Symptoms of oral cancer
Skin lesion, lump, or ulcer:
- On the tongue, lip, or other mouth area
- Usually small
- Most often pale colored, may be dark or discolored
- May be a deep, hard edged crack in the tissue
- Usually painless initially
- May develop a burning sensation or pain when the tumor is
Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:
- Tongue problems
- Swallowing difficulty
- Mouth sores
- Abnormal taste
Complications of oral cancer
- Postoperative disfigurement of the face, head and neck
- Complications of radiation therapy, including dry mouth and
- Other metastasis (spread) of the cancer
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Signs and tests
An examination of the mouth by the health care provider or dentist
shows a visible and/or palpable (can be felt) lesion of the lip,
tongue, or other mouth area. As the tumor enlarges, it may become an
ulcer and bleed. Speech difficulties, chewing problems, or swallowing
difficulties may develop, particularly if the cancer is on the tongue.
A tongue biopsy, gum biopsy, and microscopic examination of the
lesion confirm the diagnosis of oral cancer.
Staging of oral cancer
Treatment of oral cancer
Surgical excision (removal) of the tumor is usually recommended if
the tumor is small enough. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy would
likely be used when the tumor is larger or has spread to lymph nodes
in the neck. Surgery may be necessary for large tumors.
Rehabilitation may include speech therapy or other therapy to
improve movement, chewing, swallowing, and speech.