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Oral Cancer

Oral cancer includes cancer of the lips, tongue, cheeks, floor of mouth, hard palate, gums and minor salivary glands. Oral cancer usually occurs in people over the age of 45 but can develop at any age.

The following are the most common symptoms of oral cancer:

  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
  • A lump on the lip or in the mouth
  • A lump in the neck
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth
  • Unusual bleeding, pain or numbness in the mouth
  • Oral pain that does not go away or a feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty or pain with chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty with jaw opening
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Tooth loosening
  • Bad breath
  • Sensory loss of the face

If an abnormal area has been found in the oral cavity, a biopsy will determine whether it is cancer. Usually, you are referred to a head and neck surgeon, who removes part or all of the lump or abnormal-looking area. A pathologist examines the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

Almost all oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, since squamous cells line the oral cavity.

The extent of treatment for oral cancer depends on a number of factors. Among them are the location, size, type and extent of the tumor and stage of the disease. Your doctor also considers your age and general health. Treatment may involve surgery, radiation therapy or a combination. You also may receive chemotherapy, or treatment with anticancer drugs.

For most patients, it is important to have a complete dental exam before cancer treatment begins. Because cancer treatment may make the mouth sensitive and more easily infected, doctors often advise to have dental work done before treatment begins.

Surgery

Surgery to remove the tumor in the mouth is the usual treatment for patients with oral cancer. If there is evidence that the cancer has spread or a concern that it has spread, the surgeon may also remove lymph nodes in the neck. If the disease has spread to muscles and other tissues in the neck, the operation may be more extensive.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.