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Causes, Signs and Treatment of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer (also called mouth cancer) belongs to the category of head & neck carcinomas. They are otherwise referred to as oral squamous cell carcinomas because of the tendency of the squamous cells in the mouth to become cancerous.

Oral Cancer Types

The types of oral cancer depend on the location and kind of the cancerous cells. The following types of oral cancer are known:

  • Oral cavity carcinoma – This refers to any cancer that is found in the oral cavity such as in the mouth, gums, inner cheeks, teeth, hard palate, tongue, tongue floor, the floor of the mouth and salivary glands
  • Oropharyngeal cancer – This means that the oral cancer started in the oropharynx which involves the soft palate, the base of the tongue, the uvula and the palatine tonsils
  • Squamous cell carcinoma – This kind of mouth cancer occurs in the squamous or flat cells of the oral lining. They are either classified squamous carcinoma in situ (encapsulated) or invasive squamous oral cell cancer
  • Miniature cancer of the salivary glands – This type of oral cancer rarely takes place but when it does happen, it usually starts along the lining of the oropharynx and in the salivary glands

Common Causes of Oral Cancer

The cancer begins when the DNA of the healthy cells in the mouth mutate and cause a massive change in the structure and dividing mechanism of the cells. The otherwise normal oral cells undergo hyperplasia (rapid cell growth) and overcome all other healthy cells. The result of the process eliminates the healthy growing cells and replaces it with cancerous cells. The cancer cells continue to multiply and pretty soon will spread to surrounding tissues like the neck and head. In extensive invasion, the cancer cells can metastasize to the lungs and other parts of the body.

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

  • Men over the age of 40
  • Cigarette smokers
  • People using smokeless tobacco such as snuff, plug or leaves
  • Individuals engaging in excessive alcohol intake
  • Individuals who have a diet deficient in vitamins A, C, and E as well as iron, selenium and folate
  • People who expose their lips under the sun without adequate sunscreen
  • Individuals infected with viral infections such as herpes simplex virus, the HPV virus (human papilloma virus) and Epstein- Barr virus
  • Patients undergoing renal transplant
  • Patients with ill-fitting dentures and improper dental hygiene
  • African Americans

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

  • Red or white patches inside the oral cavity
  • A canker sore that does not want to heal
  • Thickening or lump along the mouth lining or skin
  • Ill-fitting dentures
  • Teeth loosening
  • Painful tongue
  • Stiffness or pain in the jaw
  • Difficulty or pain experienced when swallowing
  • Difficulty or pain experienced during mastication
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Sensation as if something is caught in the throat
  • Sudden and unexplained weight loss
  • Hoarseness in the voice
  • Speech difficulties
  • Unexplained numb sensation in the mouth and its surroundings
  • Ear pain

Diagnosing Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is detected by a dentist by performing a thorough check-up of the oral mucosa. The dentist starts by examining the mouth and throat for white patches (leukoplakia) and red patches (erythroplakia) or a combination of both called erythroleukoplakia. The dentist also sees to it if there are any unusual swellings or lumps around the area of the mouth cavity. The tongue is even gently pulled out and its undersides and sides are checked for any unusual patches.

Treatment Options for Oral Cancer

The therapy for oral cancer differs from individual to individual and is established with regards to six primary factors:

  • Age of the patient
  • Overall health and past medical history
  • Type of cancer, location and size
  • Tolerance to treatment
  • Risk for undiagnosed illness
  • Need to save particular functions

These are the methods of treatments for oral cancer:


This involves the extraction of cancerous cells and the surrounding tissues in order to prevent any relapse of the cancer. There are several types of surgery of cancerous cells of the mouth.

  • Primary tumor resection – removal of the tumor and the adjacent tissues
  • Resection of the mandible – involving the removal of the tumor and part or the whole jaw bone
  • Maxillectomy – removal of the tumor and the hard palate
  • Moh’s micrographic surgery – microscopic method of tumor extraction done by carefully removing one layer of cancer cells after another checking to ensure a clean boundary. This is usually performed on a tumor growing on the lip. This is advanced form of surgery that leaves the healthy tissue mostly intact.
  • Neck dissection – this is only performed when the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes of the neck
  • Laryngectomy – the surgeon performs this procedure on a large tumor of the pharynx or the tongue which inevitably includes the voice box or larynx


This procedure involves the use of high energy radiation waves that is aimed at the cancerous tissue and leaves the healthy tissue unscathed. This is usually used before the surgery of the cancer cells to shrink the size of the tumor (neoadjuvant), or used after surgery to ensure the death of other cancer cells that might be left behind after the procedure (adjuvant treatment). There are two kinds of radiation therapy performed at patients with oral cancer.

  • External beam radiation
  • Internal radiation


This procedure involves the administration of chemotherapeutic agents or medications in the form of pills or intravenous fluids that targets the whole system. The therapy’s main goal is to stop the unusual growth or dividing mechanism of cancerous cells or eliminate them. The treatment can also halt the cancer’s capacity to replicate. This kind of treatment may be accompanied by surgery and radiation in order to produce better results.

Prevention of Oral Cancer

There really is no surefire way to prevent oral cancer but one can reduce the risk of getting the cancer by not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, eating fruits and vegetables, avoiding excessive sun exposure and having regular dental check-ups.

Coping with Oral Cancer

An individual living with oral cancer can lead a generally normal life, depending on the extent or stages of the cancer. If the oral cancer is diagnosed earlier, then the prognosis is expected to be better.

Where to Get More Information and Support: Oral Cancer Foundation