Mouth cancer or Cancer of the mouth usually starts in the cells lining the mouth. The most common sites are the lips, tongue and floor of the mouth, but cancer can also originate in the gums, cheeks, roof of the mouth, hard and soft palate, tonsils and salivary glands.
People over the age of 45 years are at increased risk, with men twice as likely as women to develop these types of cancers.
Smoking increases the risk of mouth cancer six-fold. The location of the mouth cancer seems to depend on the usage of the tobacco product – for example, a person who habitually tucks plugs of chewing tobacco into their left cheek may be prone to cancer of that cheek.
Heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk of mouth cancer even more. Mouth cancer is easily cured if treated in its earlier stages, but around half of patients don’t consult with their doctor until their disease is well advanced.
Cause of Mouth Cancer or Cancer of the Mouth
The exact cause of mouth cancer is unknown, although tobacco products are thought to play a significant role in about 80 per cent of cases. Risk factors may include:
- Tobacco use
- Regular and heavy alcohol consumption
- Advancing age
- Sun exposure
- Poor diet
- Poor oral hygiene
- Gum disease
- Habitual chewing of the lips or cheeks
- Irritants, such as strong mouthwashes or ill-fitting dentures
- Leukoplakia (light-coloured patches of atypical cells inside the mouth)
- Herpes simplex infection (cold sores)
- Human papilloma virus infection (warts)
- Family history of cancer (genetic makeup).
Mouth Cancer Symptoms or Mouth Cancer Signs
The most common mouth cancer symptoms or mouth cancer signs include:
- A visible mass or lump that may or may not be painful.
- A sore or ulcer in the mouth that does not heal
- Discomfort or pain in the mouth that does not go away
- White patches anywhere in the mouth (leukoplakia)
- Red patches anywhere in the mouth (erythroplakia)
- A persistent blood blister.
- Bleeding from the mass or ulcer.
- Loss of sensation anywhere in the mouth or numbness in the mouth
- Trouble swallowing.
- Impaired tongue mobility.
- Difficulty moving the jaw.
- Speech changes, such as slurring or lack of clarity.
- Loose teeth and/or sore gums.
- Altered taste.
- Swollen lymph glands.
- A feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Loose teeth or dentures feeling uncomfortable and not fitting properly
- A change in your voice or speech problems
- Weight loss
- Lump in the neck
White or red patches can be signs of pre-malignancy. Pre-malignant cells are abnormal, but they are not yet mouth cancer. If left untreated, pre-malignancy can go on to develop into cancer. But if the condition is treated, then cancer can be prevented from developing.
Mouth Cancer Treatment
Mouth cancer treatment depends on the size, type and location of the mouth cancer and whether it has spread, but can include:
- Surgery – the tumor is surgically removed, if small. The lymph glands on the affected side may also be removed if the tumor extends into these.
- Radiation therapy – small, precise doses of ionizing radiation target and destroy cancer cells. This type of treatment is often all that’s needed for small, localized mouth cancers.
- Chemotherapy – the use of cancer-killing drugs, often in combination with surgery and/or radiotherapy. Chemotherapy may sometimes be used to shrink a tumor before surgery.
- Multi-modal treatments – Surgery on larger tumors may be followed with radiation therapy. Chemo-radiotherapy may also be used.
- Long term monitoring – this may include regular oral examinations and occasional X-rays to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back.
- Therapy – this may include speech therapy, dietary advice and regular medical follow-up. Clinical psychologists, social workers and counsellors can also help people come to terms with the post-operative changes to their lives and appearance.
Mouth Cancer Prognosis
As with many other types of cancer, the outcome from mouth cancer depends on how advanced the cancer is, in other words the stage and grade of the mouth cancer. The outlook or mouth cancer prognosis also depends on which part of the mouth or oropharynx is involved.
The statistics below are general and some combine all stages and types of mouth cancers. Where we have them, we have listed 5 year survival rates for specific kinds of mouth cancer but these are not available for all types.
The statistics are in general and some combine all stages and types of mouth cancers. The 5 year survival rates for specific kinds of mouth cancer are available for some but not for all types.
Mouth Cancer Survival Rate
Mouth cancer survival rate has risen slightly over the last 20 years. Of all those people diagnosed with mouth cancer or cancer of the mouth and oropharynx, about 55 out of every 100 diagnosed (55%) live for at least 5 years. About 41 out of every 100 people diagnosed (41%) will live for at least 10 years.
For oropharyngeal cancer alone, about 35 out of every 100 diagnosed (35%) will live at least 5 years. Rates for individual mouth cancers include
- Lip cancer – nearly 90 out of 100 people diagnosed (89%) will be alive 5 years later
- Tongue cancer – Just over 40 out of 100 people diagnosed (42%) will be alive 5 years later
- Oral cavity – this includes all other mouth cancers (not lip or tongue). Nearly 50 out of every 100 people diagnosed (47%) will be alive 5 years later