Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer or head and neck cancer, develops when abnormal cells grow and divide inside your mouth. It is one of the most common cancers and can affect the tongue, lips, cheeks or soft palate of the mouth.
What is mouth cancer?
Mouth cancer usually begins on the lips, tongue or floor of the mouth, but it can also be found in the roof of the mouth, tonsils, gums, cheeks and salivary glands.
It can be quite an aggressive cancer. The cancer may not be found until it is relatively advanced because there might not be any pain or symptoms. A dentist is the person most likely to discover a mouth cancer, so it’s important to have regular dental check-ups.
Mouth cancer risk factors
Mouth cancer can affect anyone from young adults to the elderly. However, there are several risk factors that increase the risk of developing mouth cancer:
- drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol
- sun exposure (especially to the lips)
- poor diet
- poor mouth hygiene
- gum disease
- a virus such as the human papillomavirus (HPV virus, which can be caught through oral sex) or the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
- having a close relative who has had mouth cancer
Types of mouth cancer
Nine out of 10 mouth cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, or cancer that grows in the squamous cells.
Rarer forms of mouth cancer include salivary gland cancer (usually an adenoma, or cancer that starts in a gland), a tumour that develops in other glands of the mouth, lymphoma (which starts in the lymph glands at the base of the tongue and tonsils), and melanoma.
Mouth cancer symptoms
The symptoms of mouth cancer include:
- a lump or sore patch in the mouth, lip, or throat
- a mouth ulcer that won’t heal
- a white or red patch in the mouth
- swollen glands that don’t go down
- a sore throat, or feeling like something is caught in your throat, that doesn’t go away
- problems chewing, swallowing or moving your jaw
- bleeding, numbness or swelling in your mouth
- changes to your speech
- loose teeth
- weight loss
None of these symptoms are necessarily due to mouth cancer. But if you are experiencing any of the above, you should tell your dentist.
Mouth cancer diagnosis
If your dentist is worried about mouth cancer, they will refer you to a doctor for tests. These might include an endoscopy, when a flexible tube is used to examine the nose, sinuses, voice box and throat. They may also want to carry out a biopsy – when a small sample of tissue is removed to be examined in a laboratory – or one or more scans, such as an x-ray, PET, CT or MRI scan.
Mouth cancer treatment
Any treatment will depend on the type of cancer and how far it has spread.
If the cancer is at an early stage, surgery is likely to remove the tumour. The type of surgery needed will also depend on where the cancer is, how large it is and how far it has spread. The surgeon may also need to remove lymph nodes and some surrounding tissue.
Small cancers may be treated just with radiotherapy, while some people will need both radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Not all mouth cancers can be treated. If the cancer is advanced, palliative care may be offered to help relieve symptoms.
Living with mouth cancer
After treatment, regular check-ups are still needed with specialists, as well as tests. Mouth cancer can come back so it is very important to see these doctors regularly.
Stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake are very important in preventing mouth cancer. Also, make sure to protect the lips from the sun. Keep your mouth very clean and see your dentist regularly, even if you have dentures.
After you have been treated for cancer, it is normal to feel afraid that the cancer will return. If you are struggling, it is important to seek support from your doctor, a therapist or other people who have been through cancer.
Cancer Council Australia provides services and support to all people affected by cancer. Call 13 11 20
Cancer Australia has more information on living with cancer.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: May 2020