Oral cancer

Oral cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. It’s a disease where harmful cells grow in your mouth. Just like other parts of your body, your mouth is very important. It helps you eat, talk and smile.

Did you know that each year, about 54,000 people in the United States find out they have oral cancer?1 And, more men get oral cancer than woman.2

What are the types of oral cancer?

Oral cancer isn’t just one thing. It’s a group of cancers that show up in various areas of your mouth. Here are some types of oral cancer you might want to know about.

How is oral cancer diagnosed?

With oral cancer, early detection is important, because as it develops, it may penetrate deeper into the tissue and spread to other areas of the body. Doctors can diagnose oral cancer by looking in your mouth, sometimes using a small camera. They may look at your mouth and throat and take pictures to understand what's happening. Endoscopies and biopsies or imaging techniques, like CT scans, may help doctors find out how widespread the cancer is.

Dentists are often the doctors who diagnose oral cancer.10 That is one of the reasons it is important to get regular dental check-ups. Also, self-examinations can help to detect oral cancer early on.11

What are signs and symptoms of oral cancer?

Do you have sores on your lips or in your mouth that won’t heal? Or maybe you have loose teeth, lumps or trouble swallowing? These could be signs of oral cancer.12 If you notice these problems for more than two weeks, it’s important to see a doctor or a dentist right away.

Am I at risk for oral cancer?

Your lifestyle choices can impact your risk of getting oral cancer, along with family history. If you use tobacco, drink a lot of alcohol, spend a lot of time in the sun without lip balm or don’t eat many fruits or vegetables, you might be more likely to get oral cancer. Those who drink alcohol and use tobacco are at a higher risk of developing oral cancer.13

Also, having certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) can increase your risk of developing oral cancer.13

Can I prevent oral cancer?

Yes, there are ways to lower your risk of getting oral cancer. Here are a few steps you can take:14

  • Don’t use any form of tobacco
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol
  • Use lip balm with sunscreen when you are outside
  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis
  • Get a vaccine for HPV

Also, remember to visit your dentist twice a year for regular check-ups. Dentists can often spot potential oral cancer during your regular check-ups. They may recommend additional tests or refer you to specialists if they find anything unusual.

Early detection of oral cancer significantly improves the chances of successful treatment, so be sure to see your dentist. Learn tips to find a dentist that’s a good fit for you.

How is oral cancer treated?

The approach to treating oral cancer will vary, based on your overall health, the type and stage of oral cancer you have and your personal preferences. It’s important to talk to your doctor and care team about what options might be best for you. Here are some common oral cancer treatment options:

Each treatment option comes with its own risk and benefits. Often, a combination of treatments is used to treat oral cancer. Your care team will help make a treatment plan that’s best for your situation.

Who should I see if I’m concerned about oral cancer?

If you have symptoms that you think might be related to oral cancer, or if you’re worried about your risk, the first step is to make an appointment with your primary care provider (the doctor or provide you see for regular yearly check-ups).

When you go, be sure to bring a list of any symptoms you’ve noticed, your full health history and any questions you might have. If you’ve had dental X-rays or any other oral screenings, it’s helpful to have those results sent to your doctor’s office before your visit.

At your appointment, your doctor will talk with you and examine your mouth. They might also order more tests or refer you to a specialist. This could be an oral surgeon, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, or an oncologist (a doctor who focuses on cancer). These experts can provide more detailed exams and treatment options if needed.10

Here’s a tip: It’s a great idea to bring a family member or friend with you to your appointment. They can offer support, and it’s always good to have someone else who can help remember all the information that your doctor shares. Learn more about how to make the most out of your next doctor’s visit.