What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer refers to cancer that occurs on the inside of the mouth. It can develop on the tongue, the roof or bottom of the mouth, the inner cheeks, the lips and the gums. When cancer develops in this area, it can invade areas of the mouth, leading to pain or sores. If it's not caught early, oral cancer can spread to other parts of the body. This makes it much more dangerous and difficult to treat.

Causes of oral cancer

Oral cancer happens when cells inside the mouth grow out of control. Cells grow out of control when their DNA develops changes called mutations. These DNA changes cause cells to build up and grow into tumors. The cells that line the inside surface of the mouth are the ones that usually develop these changes and turn into tumors.

Risk factors of oral cancer

Scientists have identified some things that may increase the risk of developing oral cancer:

  • Age — oral cancer is most common in people older than 40. Some kinds of oral cancer, especially those due to HPV, are becoming common in younger people.
  • Alcohol use — oral cancer is six times more likely in people who are heavy alcohol users.
  • Excessive sun exposure — excess sun exposure on your lips without sun block can cause oral cancer.
  • Family history — people who have a family member with oral cancer are at a higher risk.
  • HPV — certain strains of HPV can cause oral cancer, HPV is a sexually transmitted virus, or an infection that people spread through sexual activity.
  • Tobacco use — smoking is associated with whether or not a person gets oral cancer. Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking make you six times more likely to get oral cancer than a non-smoker. Dip, snuff and chewing tobacco make you 50 times more likely to get oral cancer than someone who doesn’t use tobacco.
  • Weak immune system — certain people who get sick easily because of a weak immune system are at a higher risk of getting oral cancer.

It is important to note that about 25% of people who get oral cancer aren't tobacco users and don't drink alcohol.

Symptoms of oral cancer

Oral cancer most commonly appears as a mouth sore that won’t go away. Other symptoms are:

  • A growth or lump in your mouth
  • A lump that you can feel in your neck
  • A sore that bleeds
  • A sore throat or the feeling that something is stuck in your throat
  • A white, red or speckled patch in your mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss

Diagnosis of oral cancer

Dentists examine the mouth for signs of oral cancer at each visit. They look for bumps, lumps or sores in your mouth. It's important to go to a dentist at least twice a year. Your dentist or doctor may recommend a biopsy if they see something concerning. A biopsy is a procedure where your doctor cuts out a small amount of the tissue in the area so they can look at it under a microscope. This is how doctors diagnose most oral cancers.

Treatments for oral cancer

Treatment of oral cancer is similar to other kinds of cancer treatment. It usually involves surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy (a type of chemical medicine) to get rid of the cancer. Ask your doctor what treatment choice is right for you if you're diagnosed with oral cancer.

Recovery from oral cancer

Recovery from oral cancer depends on the type of treatment. Your doctor will likely want to follow you closely in the office during and after treatment. There's a chance that oral cancer can come back even though you've received treatment. Make sure to attend all of your follow-up appointments

Find an oral cancer specialist nearby

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