Oral Cancers

This cancer type usually develops in the squamous (a tissue found in the mouth, tongue, throat, and lips). Oral cancers belong to a bigger group of cancers called neck and head cancers. Approximately 53,000 new cases of oral cancer appear in the United States each year. This cancer type usually happens in people over 40 years old. Oral cancers are usually diagnosed after they have spread to lymph nodes of the neck. Moreover, the only way to survive is early diagnosis.

Oral Cancers Types

This group of cancers includes cancers of the:

  • Hard and soft palate
  • The floor of the mouth
  • Gums
  • The inner lining of the cheek
  • Tongue
  • Lips

The first doctors who can observe oral cancer symptoms are dentists during an examination.

Risk Factors

The primary oral cancer risk factor is tobacco use including cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. The risk of oral cancer increases if you are using alcohol and tobacco products on a regular basis. Check below for other risk factors that can provoke or contribute to oral cancers:

  • Chronic facial sun exposure
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Poor nutrition
  • Males
  • Genetic syndromes
  • Weakened body’s defense (immune system)
  • Previous diagnosis of oral cancer
  • Family history

Furthermore, men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer compared to women.


Usually, the symptoms that appear due to oral cancers are different among people because it depends on the severity of the cancer and other factors. Check below the most common oral cancer symptoms:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent earache
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Loose teeth
  • Mouth bleeding
  • Sore throat
  • Jaw pain or stiffness
  • Tongue pain
  • Sores of the lips or mouth
  • Lower lip, neck, face, or chin numbness

Some of the previous symptoms may indicate other health conditions. To make sure you have oral cancer, visit a dentist as soon as possible.


Healthcare providers will perform a physical examination including the roof and floor of the mouth, the back of the throat, tongue, and cheeks, and lymph nodes of the neck. Doctors may direct you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist if they are not sure you have oral cancer.

However, if they find certain growths, tumors, or lesions they can perform a biopsy. This is a painless procedure that involves a small sample of tissue tested in the laboratory. Physicians can also order you to do some additional tests that will help to confirm the condition. Examples include:

  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • PET scans
  • MRI scans
  • Endoscopy

Oral Cancer Stages

  • Stage 1 – The tumor is smaller than 2 cm (centimeters) and the cancer does not spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage 2 – The tumor is between 2 and 4 cm.
  • Stage 3 – In such cases, the size of the tumor is more than 4 cm but it does not spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
  • Stage 4 – This is considered the end-stage of oral cancer and it begins spreading to nearby tissues or other parts of the body.

Additionally, roughly 60% of people with oral cancer will survive for 5 years or more after diagnosis, according to the National Cancer Institute. However, those who suffer from stage 1 and 2 oral cancers have a 70%-90% five-year overall survival rate.


The treatment is often different among people because it depends on the stage a person experiences, existing health conditions, and other factors. Check below some treatment options:

  • Surgery – This treatment option is usually used in the early stages of oral cancer and involves the removal of the tumor and cancerous lymph nodes. In some cases, surgeons can remove some tissue around the neck and mouth.
  • Radiation Therapy – This therapy usually lasts from 2-8 weeks. Mostly, it is used to treat advanced cancer stages and physicians prescribe it along with chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy – This is a group of medications that kill cancer cells. They can be given to you either intravenously or orally.
  • Targeted Therapy – Certain medications that interact with the growth of cancer cells. This treatment option is quite effective whether you have early or advanced-stage cancer.
  • Nutrition – There are different treatments that make it difficult or painful to eat and swallow. Moreover, if a person experiences oral cancer, poor appetite and weight loss may happen. Discuss with your healthcare professional about a diet that is good for you.

Additionally, it is very important to keep your mouth clean during cancer treatments.


The recovery depends on the treatment you experienced. Pain and swelling may occur after surgery but removing small tumors often does not cause any long-term problems. However, removing larger tumors could impact your ability to talk, swallow, as well as chew. Some people may need some surgery to reconstruct the bones and tissues that were removed by surgery. Check below for some adverse reactions that could appear after radiation therapy:

  • Sore throat
  • Tooth decay
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bleeding gums
  • Jaw stiffness and pain
  • Mouth and skin infections
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Thyroid changes

Chemotherapy also can provoke some negative effects. For example:

  • Severe anemia
  • Mouth bleeding
  • Hair loss
  • Painful gums and mouth
  • Weakness
  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Numbness in the hands and feet

You can experience certain side effects after targeted therapy. Examples include:

Consult with your doctor for more details.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are mouth cancer symptoms?

  • Weight loss
  • White or red patches on the mouth, tongue, and gums
  • Changes in speech
  • Numbness or bleeding in the mouth
  • Swelling or soreness on the lips
  • Loose teeth
  • Lump in the neck

If you experience any of the previous symptoms, do not hesitate to visit a doctor.

What is the most common age for mouth cancer?

Approximately, 95% of diagnosed oral cancers happen in people over 40 years old.

What is the survival rate for people with oral cancer?

If the patient is diagnosed with early-stage oral cancer, the survival rate of 5 years is roughly 86%. In case the cancer cells begin to spread to other tissues or organs (such as regional lymph nodes) the 5-year survival rate is about 69%. Ask your healthcare professional if you have any questions.

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