About Oral Cancer


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Lip and oral cavity cancer (also called oral cancer) is a disease where cancerous cells form in the lips or mouth.

Signs & Symptoms

These are signs of lip and oral cavity cancer:

  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
  • A lump or thickening on the lips or gums or in the mouth
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the lip or mouth
  • Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw
  • Swelling of the jaw
  • Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Change in voice

Many other health problems can also cause these signs. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about lip and oral cavity cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

Image of the Oral Cavity

anatomical drawing of the oral cavity

Anatomy of the oral cavity. The oral cavity includes the lips, hard palate (the bony front portion of the roof of the mouth), soft palate (the muscular back portion of the roof of the mouth), retromolar trigone (the area behind the wisdom teeth), front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva (gums), buccal mucosa (the inner lining of the lips and cheeks), and floor of the mouth under the tongue.

Specialties & Treatments

The treatment or combination of treatments each patient has depends on the stage of the cancer, recommendations of the care team, and the patient’s wishes. These are the most common types of treatment for lip and oral cancers: 

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Head and Neck Cancers Program provides comprehensive, compassionate, state-of-the-art care for people with these cancers. Our experts treat and diagnose all types of head and neck cancers and conditions.

Learn more about types of cancer treatment.

Find an Oral Cancer Doctor

Causes & Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean you are sure to get cancer. It means your chances are higher than the average person’s. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cancer risk.

The chance of getting lip or oral cavity cancer increases with tobacco use. These are other risk factors:

Learn more about ways to prevent cancer and about cancer screenings.

Diagnosis & Stages

Diagnosis of Oral Cancer

Doctors use these tests to diagnose lip and oral cavity cancer:

  • Physical exam and history: A health care provider examines your oral cavity for signs of disease. Your personal health habits, past illnesses, and symptoms help guide the exam.
  • Imaging tests: Using dyes, x-rays, magnets, radio waves, and/or computer technology, your health care provider can create detailed images of internal organs. Your health care provider may inject or have you swallow a dye to help see the images.
  • Exfoliative cytology: Your health care provider removes cells or tissues with a swab, in the lip or oral cavity, so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes cell or tissue samples so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Stages of Oral Cancer

Cancer stages show whether cancer has spread within or around the lips and mouth or to other parts of the body. Cancer spreads in the body in three ways: through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood.

These are the stages used for lip and oral cavity cancer:

  • Stage 0 (carcinoma in situ): Abnormal cells are in the lining of the lips and oral cavity.
  • Stage I: Cancer has formed, and the tumor is less than 2 centimeters.
  • Stage II: The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters, but less than 4.
  • Stage III: The tumor may be any size and has spread to the lymph nodes, or it is larger than 4 centimeters.
  • Stage IV (IVA, IVB, & IVC): The tumor has spread outside the lip or oral cavity and may have spread to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. These metastatic cancer cells are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if lip or oral cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually lip or oral cancer cells. The disease is metastatic lip or oral cancer, not bone cancer.

Learn more about the stages of lip and oral cavity cancer from the National Cancer Institute.