Oral Cancer (Lip, Tongue, Gums, Mucosa)

Oral cancer is cancer that starts in the mouth. Oral cancer is fairly common and very curable if found and treated at an early stage. A doctor or dentist usually finds oral cancer in its early stages because the mouth can be easily examined. 

The mouth is also called the oral cavity. It includes:

  • The lips
  • The lining inside the lips and cheeks
  • The front two-thirds of the tongue
  • The gums
  • The bottom (floor) of the mouth under the tongue
  • The bony top of the mouth (hard palate)
  • The small area of gum behind the wisdom teeth

The back of the tongue (base of the tongue), the back of the roof of the mouth (soft palate), and the tonsils are not considered part of the oral cavity. Instead, they’re part of what’s called the oropharynx. The type of cancer that can start here is called oropharyngeal cancer.

Why Choose Cooper to Treat Oral Cancer

Since 2013, Cooper has partnered with MD Anderson Cancer Center, consistently named one of the nation’s top cancer hospitals by U.S. News & World Report. Because of this relationship, you benefit from our:

  • Advanced diagnostic capabilities: Our imaging specialists use advanced diagnostic imaging such as CT, PET-CT, and other image-guided tests to detect oral cancer with precision
  • Comprehensive care from a multidisciplinary team: Your skilled care team will include head and neck surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, oral surgeons, and others. Working together, they develop a comprehensive care plan just for you.
  • Clinical research efforts: Because of our focus on cancer research, you have access to promising clinical trials that may improve your outcomes and quality of life
  • Dedicated nurse navigator: Our dedicated nurse navigator will help you better understand your treatment options while addressing any questions you have about your care, every step of the way
  • Full range of support services: Our extensive cancer care support services such as nutrition counseling and behavioral medicine therapies, can help you through your cancer treatment

Types of Oral Cancer

More than 90% of all oral cavity tumors are squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cells make up the lining of the oral cavity, also called the mucosa. 

Verrucous carcinoma is another type of oral cancer. It's considered a type of squamous cell carcinoma, but this low-grade cancer rarely spreads to distant sites (metastasizes). It accounts for less than 5% of all diagnosed oral cancer.

Other less common types of oral cancer include tumors of the salivary glands.

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

Alcohol and tobacco use (including chewing tobacco) are the two major risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.

Other risk factors for oral cancer include:

  • Paan (betel quid): These are small parcels containing areca nuts, betel leaf and other substances chewed by people from Southeast Asia; this habit has been strongly associated with an increased risk of oral cancer
  • Poor oral hygiene and missing teeth may be weak risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity
  • Use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content is a possible, but not proven, risk factor for cancers of the oral cavity
  • Radiation exposure: Radiation to the head and neck is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection. Infection with this virus is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Symptoms of oral cancer may include:

  • A white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth
  • A swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.

How Oral Cancer Is Diagnosed

To find the cause of the symptoms of a problem in the mouth, a doctor evaluates your medical history, performs a physical exam, and orders diagnostic tests. These tests may vary depending on the symptoms, but examining a sample of tissue (biopsy) under a microscope is always necessary to confirm a diagnosis of cancer.

If the diagnosis is cancer, your doctor will need to determine the stage (or extent) of disease. Staging is done to determine if the cancer has spread and, if so, to which parts of the body. Knowing the stage of the disease helps your doctor plan treatment.

Staging may involve:

  • An examination under anesthesia in an operating room
  • Imaging tests such as x-rays, CT scan, MRI scan, PET scan, or a combination PET/CT scan
  • Laboratory tests which can include blood work or molecular testing

How Oral Cancer Is Treated

Your treatment plan depends on a number of factors, including the exact location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and your age and general health. Treatment for oral cancer can include one or a combination of these options:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy 
  • Chemotherapy 
  • Targeted therapy 

In addition, new types of treatments are being tested in clinical trials to see if they’re better than the standard treatment. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Make an Appointment With an Oral Cancer Specialist at Cooper

To learn more about the services available in the Division of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery or to schedule an appointment, please call 856.342.3113.