Mouth Cancer / Oral Cancer – An Overview

Cancer occurring in the tissues of the mouth or throat is called as mouth cancer or oral cancer. If you doubt yourself or any of your close member suffering from oral cancer, then read this post to know everything about it.

What is Oral Cancer?

Cancer is a life-threatening ailment that occurs due to the uncontrollable growth of cells in one or more parts of the body. Oral cancer occurs when there is an uncontrollable growth of tissues in the mouth or throat. Usually, oral cancer develops in the squamous cells in the lips, tongue, and mouth. But in severe cases, oral cancer can also develop in deeper tissues like muscle, nerves, and bones.

In most of the cases, oral cancer is discovered after they spread to the lymph nodes of the neck. The good thing is oral cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancers when diagnosed early. (know more)

Causes of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer can develop because of numerous issues. Some of the prominent factors of oral cancer are:

  • Smoking cigarette or cigar is one of the major causes of oral cancer. Smokers are 6 times more prone to this type of cancer than the non-smokers.
  • Another major cause of occurrence of oral cancer is chewing tobacco products. Excessive consumption of such products can develop the risk of causing oral cancer in the lining of the lips, cheeks, gums, etc.
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol is another major cause of oral cancer. Alcoholics can develop this form of cancer much faster and in deeper tissues.
  • There are possibilities that people with a family history of oral cancer may develop it.
  • Excessive exposure to the sun can also result in oral cancer at a young age.
  • Infections of the mouth in people with HPV or Human Papillomavirus can also increase the risk of oral cancer.
  • Individuals who have experienced neck and head cancer in the past are also at an increased risk of oral cancer.
  • Consuming a diet rich in processed meat, red meat, and fried foods.
  • GERD or Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease, which is a digestive condition where acid in the stomach leaks back to the gullet.
  • Prior radiotherapy or radiation treatment in the neck, head, or both.

Symptoms and Early Warning Signs of Oral Cancer

Usually, oral cancer first affects the sides of the tongue and roof and floor of the mouth. At this condition a person may experience following symptoms and complications:

  • A lump in the neck or mouth
  • Painless sore or ulcer in the mouth that does not heal in two weeks even after medication
  • Difficulty in swallowing and chewing the food
  • Change in tongue sensation or taste buds
  • Thickening of the cheek
  • Hoarse voice for a longer time period
  • Numbness of the face or mouth
  • Formation of red or white patches in the mouth
  • Problem in speaking
  • Difficulty moving the tongue or jaw
  • Pain or bleeding in the mouth or lip
  • Hard, flat spot on the outside of the bottom lip
  • Weight Loss
  • A growth similar to a wart

Different Stages of Oral Cancer

There are 4 stages of Oral Cancer:

Stage 1 – At this stage, the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller and cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.

Stage 2 – At this stage, the tumor is between 2 – 4cm and the cancer cells still have not reached to the lymph nodes.

Stage 3 – The cancerous tumor at this stage is 4cm or larger and has not reached to lymph nodes. Or, in some cases, it has spread to one of the lymph nodes but not to other parts of the body.

Stage 4 – At this stage tumors are of any size and the cancer cells have spread to the tissues nearby, such as lymph nodes as well as other parts of the body.

Diagnosis of Oral Cancer

Diagnosis of Oral Cancer is done through a series of steps, such as:

  1. Screening Examination of Oral Cancer

This examination helps the dentist to know about lumps or irregular tissue changes in the face, neck, head, or oral cavity. During the examination, your doctor would look for any discolored tissue or sores and also analyze the signs and symptoms of oral cancer.

  1. Biopsy

If your dentist identifies anything suspicious in the mouth then he would perform oral brush biopsy. It is a painless test that involves extracting a small tissue sample and analyze it for abnormal cells.

  1. Scalpel Biopsy

If the oral brush biopsy test shows a positive result for cancer then your dentist would further perform scalpel biopsy. For this, you would be offered local anesthesia and a small tissue sample is extracted from the mouth to diagnose for the presence of cancerous cells.

In addition to the above-mentioned tests, your dentist would also recommend you to undergo through other diagnosis procedures like:

  • X-rays – This is done to see the reach or spread of cancer cells to other parts of the mouth and body, like jaw, neck, throat, chest, or lungs.
  • CT scan – This is done to identify the presence of tumor in the neck, lungs, mouth, throat, or other parts of the body.
  • PET scan – This is another scanning examination that is done to determine if cancer has moved to the lymph nodes or other organs of the body.
  • MRI scan A MRI scan shows a more precise image of the neck and head and hence dentist can determine the extent of cancer.
  • Endoscopy This is done to determine the nasal passages, sinuses, inner throat, trachea, and windpipe.

Treatment of Oral Cancer

The treatment for oral cancer is prescribed depending on the stage.

  • Surgical Treatment

Surgery is one of the popular and effective forms of causing oral cancer. The surgical process is usually followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Some of the major forms of surgeries done for oral cancer are Macillectomy, Glossectomy, Mandibulectomy, Mohs surgery, Radical neck dissection, and CCPDMA.

In most of the cases, a reconstructive surgery may also be suggested as an acceptable cosmetic surgery for functional results.

  • Radiation Therapy

Another option for curing oral cancer is radiation therapy. This treatment is performed by an expert who aims radiation beams at the tumor twice or once a day, 5 days a week, for around 2-8 weeks. If your cancer is of the advanced stage then it would need a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. There are some possible side effects of radiation therapy like a sore throat, bleeding from gums, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, pain and stiffness in the jaw, mouth infection, skin infection, fatigue, thyroid changes, and weight loss.

  • Chemotherapy

This is very useful for cancer when combined with radiation therapy. This treatment involves supplying drugs to kill cancer cells. This medicine is given either orally through an intravenous line. Patients needing chemotherapy may even need hospitalization.

But, there are some side effects of this treatment such as nausea, vomiting, loss of hair, diarrhea, painful gums and mouth, poor appetite, severe anemia, and more.

  • Targeted Therapy

This is another form of treatment that is effective in curing early as well as advanced stages of cancer. The drugs used under this therapy are bind to specific proteins on cancer cells and intervene in their growth.

  • Nutrition and Diet

Nutrition plays a major role in curing oral cancer. Most of the patients find it difficult to swallow or eat food and suffer from poor appetite and weight loss. It is important for you to discuss diet with the doctor.

You can consult a nutritionist in order to know about the best foods that are gentle on your throat and mouth and will serve your body with nutrients and calories needed for quick recovery.

Prevention of Oral Cancer

Some of the important preventive measures against oral cancer are as follows:

  • Do not consume tobacco products or smoke.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol consumption.
  • Consume a well-balanced diet on a daily basis.
  • Excessive exposure to the sun can cause lip cancer. Hence, try to limit the sun exposure as and when possible.
  • Do a self-examination at least once a month where you examine the parts of your mouth, like back gums, floor and roof of the mouth, lips, throat, and more.
  • See your dentists on a regular basis.


The treatment for oral cancer depends on the specific type and stage of cancer. Also, it depends on the general health, age, tolerance, and response to the treatment. Early diagnosis is essential as it can help treat cancer of stage 1 and 2.

After treatment, you must schedule frequent checkups with your doctor to make sure that you are recovering well. Regular checkups consisting of physical exams, X-rays, blood tests, and CT scans must be performed. If you notice anything abnormal then you must follow up with your oncologist or dentist.

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