Submitted by Nitin Pagedar, MD; Jeffrey Liu, MD; Neil Gross, MD
For the American Head and Neck Society Education Committee
What is oral cancer?
Oral cancers start in a part of the mouth: the lips, gums, tongue, cheeks, floor of mouth, or roof of the mouth (the palate). As they grow, they can come to involve the bones of the upper or lower jaw, they can spread to lymph nodes in the neck, or they can spread elsewhere in the body. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which is a cancer that comes from the lining on the inside of the mouth.
What causes oral cancer?
Tobacco and alcohol use are the strongest risk factors for oral cancer. All forms of tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco, put users at risk of cancer. Tobacco and alcohol are both risk factors by themselves, but the risks are even greater for people who use both.
Is oral cancer related to human papillomavirus (HPV)?
In recent years, human papillomavirus (HPV) has been found to cause an increasing number of cancers of the oropharynx, which is part of the throat. Cancers in the oropharynx (part of the throat) and oral cavity (the mouth) are not the same. To the best of our knowledge, HPV causes only a very small percentage of oral cancers.
What are the symptoms of oral cancer?
The most common symptom of oral cancer is pain, usually in the form of a non-healing sore which can appear white and/or red. A new lump in the neck that does not go away after several weeks can also be a sign of oral cancer.
Whom should I see if I think I might have oral cancer?
Dentists and primary care physicians can provide advice or referral to an appropriate specialist, most often an otolaryngologist (ENT) or oral surgeon. If oral cancer is identified, then it is usually managed by a specially trained head and neck surgeon.
How is oral cancer treated?
Oral cancer is usually first treated with surgery. Radiation and/or chemotherapy therapy are sometimes recommended after surgery depending on the exact nature of the cancer. See the treatment section below for more details.