What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer

Oral cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in any part of the mouth or lips. Most oral cancers start in the lining of the lips or mouth in the thin, flat cells called squamous cells.

Symptoms for oral cancer include sores or lumps that appear on the lips or in the mouth. Sometimes white patches that cannot be rubbed off may form in the lining of the mouth.

Treatment for oral cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.

What are the symptoms of oral cancer?

Symptoms of oral cancer include sores or lumps on the lips or in your mouth. Talk with your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • A sore on your lip or in your mouth that bleeds easily and doesn't heal
  • A lump or thickening on your lips, gums, cheek, or in your mouth
  • A white or red patch on your gums, your tongue, tonsils, or the lining of your mouth
  • A sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in your throat
  • Unexplained difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving your jaw or tongue
  • Numbness or pain in your tongue or other areas of your lips or mouth
  • Swelling in your jaw that makes your teeth loose or your dentures fit poorly
  • Changes in your voice
  • Dry mouth

How is oral cancer treated?

Treatment for oral cancer is based on the stage of the cancer and other things, such as your overall health. Treatment options may include:


The doctor may remove the cancer along with a border of normal tissue around it, called a margin.

Radiation therapy.

This uses high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.


These medicines kill fast-growing cells, including cancer cells and some normal cells. Chemotherapy and radiation may be given together. This is called chemoradiation.

In some cases, targeted therapy or immunotherapy may be an option. A clinical trial may be a good choice.

Your doctor will talk with you about your options and then make a treatment plan.

How can you help prevent oral cancer?

The following steps may help prevent oral cancer.

  • Don't use tobacco in any form.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit how much you drink. Any amount of alcohol may increase your risk for some types of cancer.
  • Use sun protection on your lips, such as a lip balm that has sunscreen or a colored lipstick.
  • Get dental checkups twice a year so that signs of oral cancer can be detected early.

Researchers are studying how people can make changes in their lifestyles to reduce their risk for cancer. One change that may reduce the risk for oral cancer is eating more fruits and fiber-rich vegetables.

How is oral cancer diagnosed?

Your dentist or doctor may look closely at your lips, mouth, or throat to check for signs of oral cancer. Other tests may be needed if there are possible signs of cancer. These tests may include a biopsy, an X-ray, or an MRI.

Who can treat oral cancer?

Treatment for oral cancer is usually provided by a team of doctors who are experts in treating head and neck cancers. The team may include:

  • A medical oncologist.
  • A head and neck surgeon.
  • An oral (maxillofacial) surgeon.
  • A radiation oncologist.

Depending on your treatment, you may have help from other specialists, such as a speech therapist or a plastic surgeon.

How can you care for yourself when you have oral cancer?

Taking medicines as prescribed and getting enough sleep may help you feel better. If it's hard to eat, talk to your doctor or a dietitian. Get some physical activity each day if you can. Consider joining a support group or talking with a counselor.

What puts you at risk for oral cancer?

Things that increase your risk for oral cancer include using tobacco and heavy alcohol use. Other risk factors are being male and having an HPV infection. For cancers of the lip, exposure over a long period of time to ultraviolet light from the sun or from tanning beds increases risk.

Some combinations of risk factors, such as using tobacco and drinking alcohol, increase the risk for oral cancer more than either risk factor alone.

What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in any part of the mouth or lips. Most oral cancers start in the lining of the lips or mouth where you have thin, flat cells called squamous cells. This type of cancer may also be called oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer.

Cancer Treatment: Help for Mouth and Throat Problems

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.