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Oral Cancer

Condition Basics

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.

What puts you at risk?

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 are the symptoms?

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 it 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.

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 tumours.


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 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 prevent it?

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 coloured 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 fibre-rich vegetables.


Current as of: February 28, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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