Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer or cancer of the oral cavity, is often used to describe many cancers that start in the region of the mouth. These most commonly occur on the lips, tongue and floor of the mouth but can also start in the cheeks, gums, roof of the mouth, tonsils and salivary glands.

Mouth cancers are generally classified as head and neck cancers. While the term mouth cancer is seldom used in scientific literature nor in Australia’s official cancer data collection system, we use it here because it is used in basic information to promote cancer prevention and is easy to understand.

Early Detection Saves Lives

With early detection and timely treatment, deaths from oral cancer could be dramatically reduced.

The 5-year survival rate for those with localized disease at diagnosis is 84 percent compared with only 39 percent for those whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Early detection of oral cancer is often possible. Tissue changes in the mouth that might signal the beginnings of cancer often can be seen and felt easily.

Mouth cancer symptoms

Symptoms of mouth cancer can include:

  • a lump in your neck
  • loose teeth
  • swelling or a sore on your lip that won’t heel
  • difficult or painful swallowing
  • changes in speech
  • bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • white or red patches on the mouth, tongue or gums
  • unexplained weight loss.

Causes of mouth cancer

The main risk factors for most mouth cancers are tobacco and alcohol consumption. Other risk factors can include:

  • poor oral hygiene and gum disease
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
  • family history of mouth cancers
  • exposure to the sun
  • chewing the seed of the areca palm tree (sometimes called areca or betel nut).

Signs of mouth cancer

Signs of mouth cancer are often first detected by your dentist. dentist is likely to examine your mouth, throat, tongue, cheeks, ears and eyes. You may also be referred to a specialist for additional tests, such as:

  • A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue which is sent to a pathologist to determine if cancer cells are present.
  • Radiographs of the head and neck can be used to see if cancer cells are present in the jaw, lungs or chest.
  • PET, CT and MRI scans to determine the location, stage and spread of cancer cells.

Treatment for mouth cancer

Treatment for mouth cancer depends on the type of cancer, where it is located and how far it has spread.

Staging

Tests such as CT and MRI scans help to determine how far the cancer has spread. Staging helps your doctor decide on the best treatment options for you.

Surgery

A common treatment for mouth cancers is surgery to remove the tumour, particularly in early-stage cancer. The extent of surgery may depend on the size of the tumour and how far the cancer has spread. Surrounding tissue and lymph nodes may also be removed.

Radiotherapy can be used on its own to treat some small mouth cancers. Radiotherapy can also be used in combination with chemotherapy for more advanced cancers. Your doctor may also recommend radiotherapy after surgery.

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or shrink tumours. It can be used on its own or with radiotherapy. You may have chemotherapy to shrink a tumour before surgery or if cancer has come back after other treatments.

Palliative care

Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life without trying to cure the cancer. It may be recommended by your doctor to alleviate the symptoms of cancer or the side-effects of treatment.

Early Detection Saves Lives

With early detection and timely treatment, deaths from oral cancer could be dramatically reduced.

The 5-year survival rate for those with localised disease at diagnosis is 84 percent compared with only 39 percent for those whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Early detection of oral cancer can be seen and felt easily.