Oral cancer (mouth cancer or cancer of the oral cavity) includes:

  • Lips
  • Gums
  • Tongue
  • Inner lining of the cheeks
  • Roof (palate) and floor of the mouth

Mouth cancers commonly begin in the flat, thin cells (squamous cells) that line your lips and the inside of your mouth. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Abnormal mouth cells can also form a cancerous tumor. 

Oral cancer appears as a lump or sore in the mouth that does not go away. It may be:

  • A deep, hard-edged crack in the tissue 
  • Pale, dark or discolored 
  • Painless at first, then painful when the tumor grows

Oral cancers are about twice as common in men as in women. People who smoke and drink alcohol in great amounts increase their risk. As you get older, the likelihood you will get oral cancer increases. Other risk factors include:

  • Excessive sun exposure to your lips
  • A sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • A weakened immune system

Treatment

At Penn State Cancer Institute, we diagnose and treat all types of oral cancer. Our multidisciplinary team is made up of surgeons, radiation and medical oncologists, and pathologists. We guide you through every step of your care.

Our head and neck surgeons may treat your mouth cancer with complex or simple surgery, as needed. Your treatment may include radiation and/or chemotherapy as well as medical therapy (taking medication). 

Our surgeons take part in conferences with other cancer specialists. We discuss the specifics of your case and - putting all our skill and experience together - create a treatment plan just for you.

Our advanced surgery techniques include:

If needed, we can also improve your appearance after surgery with state-of-the-art facial reconstruction.

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Prevention and Screening

To prevent oral cancer:

  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco products.
  • Drink less alcohol.
  • Limit the time you spend in the sun and use sunscreen.
  • Protect yourself against HPV.

Screening

The American Cancer Society recommends an oral cancer screening every three years for people over 20. People over 40 should have a screening every year. Your dentist can do the screening during a routine exam. 

Spots or sores in the mouth can be very tiny and difficult to see on your own. However, call your dentist if you notice:

  • Red or white patches in your mouth
  • Bleeding sores or lumps inside the mouth 
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the sides of your neck or under your lower jaw

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Oral cancer is cancer that starts in the mouth.

Symptoms

Many types of tumors can develop in the mouth. They fit into three general categories:

  • Benign or non-cancerous growths 
  • Harmless growths that can later develop into cancer
  • Cancerous tumors that can grow into surrounding tissues

Common signs of oral cancer include:

  • Swelling, thickening, lumps or bumps on lips, gums or other areas inside the mouth
  • White, red or speckled white and red patches in the mouth
  • A mouth sore that bleeds and doesn't heal within two weeks
  • Jaw pain or stiffness
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing 
  • Hoarseness or a sore throat that doesn't go away
  • Loose teeth
  • Dramatic weight loss

Diagnosis

If the tissue in your mouth looks suspicious, your dentist or surgeon will perform a biopsy, taking a sample of tissue to look for cancerous cells under a microscope.

If you have cancer, your care team will conduct tests to help them decide how to treat it. They may use: 

  • Endoscopy uses a small flexible camera to examine the nose, mouth, throat and vocal cords.
  • Imaging tests may include CT scans and MRIs to see if cancer has spread to surrounding areas, and PET scans to see if it has spread to other parts of the body.

Patients with early-stage oral cancer have long-term survival rates of up to 70 percent.

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