Oral Cancer

Some Signs & Symptoms:

  • Irritation, tenderness, burning, or sore that will not heal
  • Pain, tenderness or numbness in the mouth or lips
  • Tongue problems
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Mouth sores that do not resolve in 14 days
  • Skin lesion, lump or ulcer in the mouth area
  • Change in the way your teeth fit together
  • Color changes in your oral soft tissues (red, gray, or white spots or patches)

*See your dentist or physician immediately if you notice any of these changes.

 Causes and risk factors:

  • Tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Human Papillomavirus
  • Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation


An examination of the mouth by the health care provider or dentist shows a visible and/or palpable (can be felt) lesion of the lip, tongue, or other mouth area. As the tumor enlarges, it may become an ulcer and bleed. Speech/talking difficulties, chewing problems, or swallowing difficulties may develop. A feeding tube is often necessary to maintain adequate nutrition. This can sometimes become permanent as eating difficulties can include the inability to swallow even a sip of water.

There are a variety of screening devices that may assist dentists in detecting oral cancer.  While a dentist, physician or other health professional may suspect a particular lesion is malignant, there is no way to tell by looking alone - since benign and malignant lesions may look identical to the eye. A non-invasive biopsy can be performed to rule out the presence of dysplasia (pre-cancer) and cancer on areas of the mouth that exhibit an unexplained color variation or lesion. The only definitive method for determining if cancerous or precancerous cells are present is through biopsy and microscopic evaluation of the cells in the removed sample. A tissue biopsy, whether of the tongue or other oral tissues and microscopic examination of the lesion confirm the diagnosis of oral cancer or precancer.


Surgical excision (removal) of the tumor is usually recommended if the tumor is small enough, and if surgery is likely to result in a functionally satisfactory result. Radiation therapy with or without chemo is often used in conjunction with surgery, or as the definitive radical treatment, especially if the tumor is inoperable.