Mouth cancer (or oral cancer) is the growth of abnormal cell growth in the
mouth tissues. While oral cancer most commonly involves tissues in the lips or tongue,
it can also form in the tonsils or minor salivary glands.
The American Cancer Institute estimates there will be more than 36,540
new cases of oral cancer and more than 7,800 oral cancer-related deaths by the
end of 2010. The cancer is twice as common in men as it is in women.
The majority of oral cancer cases (70 to 80 percent) are linked to
tobacco use. Inhaling tobacco irritates the mucous membranes of the mouth,
while smokeless tobacco causes the irritation from the direct contact. The second
most common activity associated with oral cancer is heavy alcohol use.
Symptoms of Oral Cancer
Oral cancer most often manifests as a lesion, lump, or ulcer in the
mucous membranes. They may appear:
- on the tongue, lip, inner cheek, or other area
in the mouth
- painless at first
- develop a burning sensation
- as a hard-edged crack in the tissue
- pale colored
- dark or discolored
Other symptoms of oral cancer include:
- difficulty swallowing
- tongue inflammation or soreness
- difficulty speaking
- chewing problems
- jaw stiffness
- an abnormal taste in the mouth.
You should see a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. A
doctor will do a physical examination of the mouth, but a biopsy (sample
removed and reviewed in a laboratory) is needed for a diagnosis. After
diagnosing cancer, your doctor will perform a number of tests in order to stage
the cancer—in other words, determine how far along the cancer has progressed.
Staging the cancer may require an endoscopy, c-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and PET
scans, among others.
Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Surgery is often used in
oral cancer if the tumor is small and caught early enough. Radiation and
chemotherapy are also used if the tumor is larger. Targeted drug therapy is
As with most cancers, the outlook very much depends on how early the
cancer is caught and when treatment begins. About 25 percent of people with
oral cancer die from it because of delayed diagnosis and treatment.