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Mouth cancer

4-minute read

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 world's 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 you might not have any pain or symptoms. Your 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 your risk of developing 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 your 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 your 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, you will likely have surgery 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, you may be offered palliative care to help relieve your symptoms.

Living with mouth cancer

After treatment, you will still need regular check-ups with your specialists, as well as tests. Mouth cancer can come back so it is very important to see your doctors regularly.

Stopping smoking and reducing your alcohol intake are very important in preventing mouth cancer. Also, make sure you protect your 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. 

More information

Cancer Council Australia provides services and support to all people affected by cancer. Call 13 11 20

beyondblue provides support for people with depression and anxiety.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2018

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