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Oral Cancer

Topic Overview

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.

Risk factors (things that increase your risk) for oral cancer include smoking (or using smokeless tobacco) and heavy alcohol use. Other risk factors are being male, using marijuana, or having human papillomavirus (HPV). For cancers of the lip, exposure over a long period of time to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or from tanning beds increases risk.

Symptoms for 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 does not 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 (xerostomia)

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, such as a biopsy, an X-ray, or an MRI.

Oral cancer is usually treated with surgery and radiation therapy. Your treatment will depend on the stage of your cancer and your other health factors. If the cancer is advanced, other treatments may be used. You may get chemotherapy. Or chemotherapy and targeted therapy may be used together.

You can find more information about oral cancer at the National Cancer Institute website www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/oral.

Prevention

Researchers are studying how people can make changes in their lifestyles to reduce their risk for cancer. One lifestyle change that may reduce the risk for oral cancer is eating more fruits and fiber-rich vegetables.

Take the following steps to prevent oral cancer:

  • Don't use tobacco in any form.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Use sun protection on your lips, such as a lip balm that has sunscreen or a colored lipstick.
  • Get dental checkups twice a year so that signs of oral cancer can be detected early.

Some combinations, such as using tobacco and drinking alcohol, increase the risk more than using tobacco or drinking alcohol. The same is true for using marijuana if you have high-risk HPV infection.

What To Think About

Treatment for oral cancer is usually provided by a team of doctors who are experts in treating head and neck cancers. The team may include a medical oncologist, a head and neck surgeon, an oral (maxillofacial) surgeon, or a radiation oncologist. Depending on your treatment, you may have help from other specialists, such as a speech therapist or a plastic surgeon.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials for oral cancer look at new ways to treat oral cancer. Treatments being studied include:

  • Chemotherapy .
  • Hyperfractionated radiation therapy, which is giving the total dose of radiation therapy in many small treatments, often more than one a day.
  • Hyperthermia therapy, where body tissue is heated above normal temperatures. This kills cancer cells or makes them more sensitive to radiation or medicines.

Sometimes a clinical trial offers the best treatment choice. Your medical team will let you know if there is a clinical trial that might be good for you. For more information, see www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials or http://clinicaltrials.gov.

Having cancer can change your life in many ways. For support in managing these changes, see the topic Getting Support When You Have Cancer.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American Cancer Society (ACS)
Phone: 1-800-ACS-2345 (1-800-227-2345)
Web Address: www.cancer.org
 

The American Cancer Society (ACS) conducts educational programs and offers many services to people with cancer and to their families. Staff at the toll-free number have information about services and activities in local areas and can provide referrals to local ACS divisions.



American Dental Association
211 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL  60611-2678
Phone: (312) 440-2500
Web Address: www.ada.org
 

The American Dental Association (ADA), the professional membership organization of practicing dentists, provides information about oral health care for children and adults. The ADA can also help you find a dentist in your area.



National Cancer Institute (NCI)
6116 Executive Boulevard
Suite 300
Bethesda, MD  20892-8322
Phone: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
Web Address: www.cancer.gov (or https://livehelp.cancer.gov/app/chat/chat_launch for live help online)
 

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is a U.S. government agency that provides up-to-date information about the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer. NCI also offers supportive care to people who have cancer and to their families. NCI information is also available to doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. NCI provides the latest information about clinical trials. The Cancer Information Service, a service of NCI, has trained staff members available to answer questions and send free publications. Spanish-speaking staff members are also available.



National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892-2190
Phone: (301) 496-4261
Fax: (301) 480-4098
Email: nidcrinfo@mail.nih.gov
Web Address: www.nidcr.nih.gov
 

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) is a governmental agency that provides information about oral, dental, and craniofacial health. By conducting and supporting research, the NIDCR aims to promote health, prevent diseases and conditions, and develop new diagnostics and therapeutics.



Oral Cancer Foundation
3419 Via Lido
#205
Newport Beach, CA 92663
Phone: (949) 646-8000
Email: info@oralcancerfoundation.org
Web Address: www.oralcancerfoundation.org
 

The Oral Cancer Foundation is dedicated to educating the public and professionals about oral cancer. The foundation works to spread awareness of prevention through lifestyle changes and promotes early detection. It also sponsors research to find better ways to treat oral cancer.



References

Other Works Consulted

  • Chepeha DB, et al. (2011). Rehabilitation after treatment of head and neck cancer. In VT DeVita Jr. et al., eds., DeVita, Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology, 9th ed., pp. 781–788. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Lee N, et al. (2012). Benign and malignant lesions of the oral cavity, oropharynx and nasopharynx. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 377–386. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Mendenhall WM, et al. (2011). Treatment of head and neck cancer. In VT DeVita Jr et al., eds., DeVita, Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology, 9th ed., pp. 729–780. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • National Cancer Institute (2012). Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ)—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/lip-and-oral-cavity/HealthProfessional.
  • National Cancer Institute (2012). Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ)—Patient Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/lip-and-oral-cavity/patient.
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2012). Head and neck cancers. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, version 1.2012. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/head-and-neck.pdf.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Arden Christen, DDS, MSD, MA, FACD - Dentistry
Last Revised December 21, 2012

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