Oral cancer is cancer that starts in the mouth. Oral cancer most commonly involves the lips or the tongue, but may also occur on the:

  • Cheek lining
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Gums
  • Roof of the mouth

Most oral cancers are a type called squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers tend to spread quickly.

Smoking and other tobacco use are linked to most cases of oral cancer. Heavy alcohol use also increases the risk of oral cancer.

Some oral cancers begin as a white plaque (leukoplakia) or as a mouth ulcer.

Oral Cancer Symptoms

Oral cancer often appears as a lump or ulcer in the mouth. Other symptoms may include:

  • Chewing problems
  • Mouth sores that may bleed
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Speech difficulties
  • Swallowing difficulty
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Tongue problems
  • Weight loss

Oral Cancer Diagnosis

Your health care provider will examine your mouth area. Tests used to confirm oral cancer include:

  • Gum biopsy
  • Tongue biopsy

After the biopsy, your doctor will examine the tissue underneath a microscope to see if it is cancer. If the cells are cancerous, your doctor will also be able to determine how fast the cancerous cells are growing and the type of cancer. This information is critical for designing a personalized treatment plan that will be most effective for your type of cancer.

Oral Cancer Treatment

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is scary. Our head and neck cancer experts at Wake Forest Baptist are committed to providing the best possible surgical, medical and radiation care possible.

Surgery to remove the tumor is usually recommended if the tumor is small enough. Surgery may be used together with radiation therapy and chemotherapy for larger tumors.

Tumors in the mouth and throat can cause mechanical obstruction to food and liquid swallows. However, more common are swallowing problems after the tumor has been removed or radiated (via radiation therapy). We will work closely with you to diagnose the type of swallowing problem you have and recommend how to treat the swallowing problem, possibly referring you to our voice and swallowing program.