Oral Cancer: Introduction 

What is cancer?

Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when your body does not need them any longer. Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn’t need them. In most types of cancer, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor.

What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer is cancer that starts in the mouth or throat. Oral cancer is fairly common and very curable if found and treated at an early stage. A doctor or dentist usually finds oral cancer in its early stages because the mouth can be easily examined. 

Understanding the mouth and throat

The mouth is also called the oral cavity. It includes many parts:

  • The lips

  • The lining inside the lips and cheeks (buccal mucosa)

  • The front two-thirds of the tongue (oral tongue)

  • The gums and teeth

  • The bottom of the mouth (floor)

  • The bony top of the mouth (hard palate)

  • The area behind the wisdom teeth (retromolar trigone)

The back of the tongue (base of the tongue), the back of the roof of the mouth (soft palate), and the tonsils are not considered part of the oral cavity. Instead, they are considered part of the region called the oropharynx, or throat.

Every part of the mouth has an important function. For example, the lips are very important for speaking. The tongue is also very important for speaking, as well as for swallowing. The gums help protect the teeth and keep them healthy. Salivary glands in the mouth make saliva to keep the mouth wet and to help digest food.

Cancers of the oral cavity can cause eating and speaking problems, and can sometimes hinder normal breathing.

Types of oral cancer

More than 90% of all oral cavity tumors are squamous cell carcinoma, according to the National Cancer Institute. Squamous cells make up the lining of the oral cavity, also called the mucosa. As cancer in the lining of the mouth grows, it can spread deeper into the nearby tissues of the mouth.

Verrucous carcinoma is another type of oral cancer. It's considered a type of squamous cell carcinoma, but this low-grade cancer rarely spreads to distant sites (metastasizes). It accounts for less than 5% of all diagnosed oral cancer.

Other much less common types of oral cancer include tumors of the salivary glands, including adenoid cystic carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and other types of salivary gland cancer.

Talk with your healthcare provider

If you have questions about oral cancer, talk with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can help you understand more about this cancer.