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Alternative Names Return to topCancer - mouth; Mouth cancer; Head and neck cancer; Squamous cell cancer - mouth
Definition Return to top
Oral cancer is cancer of the mouth.
Causes Return to top
Oral cancer most commonly involves the tissue of the lips or the tongue. It may also occur on the floor of the mouth, cheek lining, gums (gingiva), or roof of the mouth (palate).
Most oral cancers look very similar under the microscope and are called squamous cell carcinomas. These are malignant and tend to spread rapidly.
Smoking and other tobacco use are associated with 70 - 80% of oral cancer cases. Smoke and heat from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes irritate the mucous membranes of the mouth. Use of chewing tobacco or snuff causes irritation from direct contact with the mucous membranes. Heavy alcohol use is another activity associated with increased risk for oral cancer.
Other factors that increase the risk of oral cancer include poor dental and oral hygiene and chronic irritation (such as from rough teeth, dentures, or fillings). Some oral cancers begin as a white plaque ( leukoplakia) or as a mouth ulcer. Recently, infection with HPV (human papilloma virus) has beeen shown to be a risk factor.
Oral cancer accounts for about 8% of all malignant growths. Men get oral cancer twice as often as women do, particularly men older than 40.
Symptoms Return to top
Mucous membrane lesion, lump, or ulcer:
Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:
Exams and Tests Return to top
An examination of the mouth by the health care provider or dentist shows a visible or palpable (can be felt) lesion of the lip, tongue, or other mouth area. As the tumor enlarges, it may become an ulcer and bleed. Speech difficulties, chewing problems, or swallowing difficulties may develop, particularly if the cancer is on the tongue.
A tongue biopsy, gum biopsy, and microscopic examination of the lesion confirm the diagnosis of oral cancer.
Treatment Return to top
Surgical removal of the tumor is usually recommended if the tumor is small enough. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy would likely be used when the tumor is larger or has spread to lymph nodes in the neck. Surgery may be necessary for large tumors.
Rehabilitation may include speech therapy or other therapy to improve movement, chewing, swallowing, and speech.
Support Groups Return to top
The stress of illness can often be eased by joining a support group of people who share common experiences and problems. See cancer - support group.
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
Approximately half of people with oral cancer will live more than 5 years after diagnosis and treatment. If the cancer is detected early, before it has spread to other tissues, the cure rate is nearly 75%. Unfortunately, more than half of oral cancers are advanced at the time the cancer is detected. Most have spread to the throat or neck.
Approximately 25% of people with oral cancer die because of delayed diagnosis and treatment.
Possible Complications Return to top
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
Oral cancer may be discovered when the dentist performs a routine cleaning and examination.
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have a lesion of the mouth or lip or a lump in the neck that does not go away within 1 month. Early diagnosis and treatment of oral cancer greatly increases the chances of survival.
Prevention Return to top
You should have the soft tissue of the mouth examined once a year. Many oral cancers are discovered by routine dental examination.
References Return to top
National Comprehensive Cancer Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Head and Neck Cancers. National Comprehensive Cancer Network; 2008. Version 2.2008.
Posner M. Head and neck cancer. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 200.Update Date: 2/12/2009 Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.