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Oral Cancer - Causes, Symptoms, Stages, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Oral Cancer - Causes, Symptoms, Stages, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, and Treatment

5 min read


Oral cancer is a common complication faced by smokers. Read this article to know more.

Written by

Dr. Lochana .k

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Sneha Kannan

Published At March 19, 2021
Reviewed AtApril 12, 2024

What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer refers to the presence of cancerous tissue in any part of the oral cavity. Unlike the other types of cancer, oral cancer can involve several sites in the body. These sites might include the tongue, lips, gums, cheeks, floor, and the surface of the tongue. This type of cancer is very common among smokers. The cause of oral cancer might be very specific, making it very easy to diagnose and treat. However, the diagnosis should be as early as possible for successful treatment outcomes.

What Is the Epidemiology of Oral Cancer?

Men are known to be affected more by oral cancer than women. The common age of occurrence of oral cancer is over 40 years of age. Reports suggest that more than 49,000 new cases are recorded every year in the United States of America. It is a very deadly condition, and each hour, one person is known to die from oral cancer.

What Are the Causes of Oral Cancer?

The main cause of oral cancer is chronic smoking. A severe stage of oral cancer is seen in intense smokers. They also have manifestations of lung cancer in association with oral cancer. The toxic substances present in the cigarettes, such as nicotine, have the tendency to destroy and rupture the healthy cells of the body. Prolonged exposure to nicotine results in the abnormal pigmentation of the oral mucosa that might later convert into a cancerous condition. Passive smokers also suffer a risk of lung and throat cancer. A close relationship with smokers might serve as a potential causative and risk factor for oral cancer. Involving in oral sex with chain smokers can make a healthy individual get exposed to the harmful substance of cigarettes. Also, exchanging saliva with the smoker during kissing or any intimate behavior can serve as a cause.

Chewing tobacco equally carries the risk of oral cancer. Any type of smoking pipes could cause this type of cancer.

How Does the Human Body Respond to Oral Cancer?

Both the oropharynx and the mouth may be impacted by oral cancer. The region visible when the mouth is wide open is called the oropharynx, and it consists of portions of the tongue, the roof of the mouth, and the middle of the throat. The term "oropharyngeal cancer" refers to cancer of the oropharynx.

Which Bodily Parts Are Located Within the Mouth?

The following are included in the oral cavity:

  • Mouth.

  • Gums.

  • The inner surface of the cheeks.

  • The tongue's first two-thirds.

  • The area beneath the tongue, or the floor of the mouth.

  • The uppermost portion of the mouth's roof.

  • The area immediately beyond the wisdom teeth.

What Are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?

Various symptoms that are associated with oral cancer are:

  • An earache that does not subside.

  • Mass or growth anywhere in your mouth.

  • Bleeding from your mouth.

  • Loose teeth.

  • Sore on your mouth or lip that does not heal.

  • Lump in the neck.

  • Pain or difficulty swallowing.

  • Trouble wearing dentures.

  • Dramatic weight loss.

  • Red, red-white, or white patches in or on your lips or mouth.

  • Tongue pain.

  • Chin, lower, neck, or face numbness.

  • Jaw stiffness or pain.

  • Sore throat.

Do Any Particular Activities Put One at Higher Risk of Oral Cancer?

Approximately 75 percent of individuals with oral cancer engage in the following behaviors:

  • Smoke pipes, cigars, or cigarettes.

  • Make use of smokeless tobacco items like dip, snuff, and chewing tobacco.

  • Consume large amounts of alcohol regularly.

  • Spend a lot of time in the sun without using sunscreen on their lips.

  • Possess the HPV (human papillomavirus).

  • Have an oral cancer family history.

What Are the Stages of Oral Cancer?

There are four stages of oral cancer. They are explained below.

  • Stage 1: The size of the tumor is two centimeters or less than two centimeters. The tumor has not spread to any other regions.

  • Stage 2: In stage 2, the size of the tumor is two to four centimeters. Even in this stage, the tumor does not spread.

  • Stage 3: The size of the tumor is four or more than four centimeters. Involvement of only one lymph node along with the actual site is noted.

  • Stage 4: This is the very complicated stage where the tumor had spread to several other parts of the body.

What Are the Risk Factors of Oral Cancer?

The risk factors associated with oral cancer are:

  • Excessive Consumption of Alcohol: Alcohol consumption can irritate the oral mucosa and make it highly prone to oral cancer. Drinking alcohol should not exceed more than one drink for females and one or two drinks for males.

  • Age: People who are more than 65 years of age are suffering a higher risk for cancer.

  • Exposure to Sunlight: It is true that the sun is rich in vitamin D. But abnormally high levels of sunlight exposure can affect the mouth and the entire face. This can invite the risk of cancer.

  • Human Papillomavirus: A positive infection with the human papillomavirus can elevate the risk for oral cancer.

  • Poor immune system.

  • Genetic syndromes

  • Family history of oral cancer.

How Is Oral Cancer Diagnosed?

Diagnosis for oral cancer involves the following:

  • Clinical Examination: The dentist or the doctor will perform a clinical examination to check for abnormalities in the lips or oral cavity.

  • Biopsy: Biopsy is a procedure in which a small part of the tissue is removed and sent to a laboratory for identification of the presence of abnormal cells in the body. Laboratory procedures are also helpful in analyzing the stages of cancerous and precancerous changes.

  • Endoscopy: In endoscopy, a small camera is inserted into the throat to visualize the images of the involved site.

  • Imaging Techniques: Imaging techniques like MRI, CT scan, and X-ray are also recommended for diagnosing oral cancer. In some patients, the positron emission tomography technique is also recommended.

What Are Treatment Options for Oral Cancer?

The treatment options are planned according to the site and size of the tumor.

  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a good option for oral cancer, where it is treated with the help of medications. The routes of drug administration are oral or intravenous routes.

  • Radiotherapy: Radiotherapy is also a good treatment method for cancer. It is not suitable for all the patients. There are certain side effects of radiotherapy. They are:

    • Dry mouth.

    • Sore throat.

    • Nausea and vomiting.

    • Tooth decay.

    • Sore or bleeding gums.

    • Jaw stiffness and pain.

    • Skin and mouth infections.

    • Fatigue.

    • Problems wearing dentures.

    • Changes in the skin pattern.

    • Altered taste and smell.

    • Thyroid changes.

    • Weight loss.

  • Surgery: Surgery is preferred for larger tumors. Sometimes the tissues of the neck will also be removed in this procedure. If larger parts of the tissues are removed by the surgical procedure, then the patient might require reconstruction surgery.

How to Prevent Oral Cancer?

The following steps can help one to prevent the occurrence of oral cancer:

  • Avoid smoking.

  • Consume alcohol in moderation.

  • Use sunscreen.

  • Follow a healthy and well-balanced diet.

  • Vaccinate against the human papillomavirus.

  • Get frequent dental examinations.

How Is the Prognosis for Oral Cancer?

The prognosis for oral cancer is predicted by the National Cancer Institute. In a localized type of oral cancer, 83 percent prognosis is expected. If cancer has not spread to any lymph nodes, a 64 percent prognosis is expected. If there is the spreading of cancer to other parts, the prognosis is poor, and it could be less than 38 percent. An overall survival time of five years is noted in patients with oral cancer.


The eleventh most prevalent cancer globally is oral cancer. The two main risk factors for oral cancer are excessive alcohol use and tobacco use in any form. These variables and nutritional inadequacies account for about 90 % of mouth cancer cases. Many oral cancers may be avoided if alcohol and tobacco use are reduced and fruit and vegetable eating is increased.

Frequently Asked Questions


How Will the Early Stages of Mouth Cancer Look Like?

The early stages of mouth cancer will rarely cause any pain, but the other symptoms may include:
- Mouth sores.
- Red and white patches.
- Abnormal cell growth like flat patches.
- Unexplained tooth loosening.
- The growing tumor in the gums will weaken the tooth socket.
- Painless lump on the lip, mouth, or throat.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- A canker sore will look like an ulcer, usually with a depression in the center.
- In the middle of the canker sore, it may appear as white, gray, or yellow, where the edges will be red.


How Long Can a Person Live with Oral Cancer?

About one-half of people with oral cancer will live more than five years after being diagnosed and treated. The earlier it is detected, the cure rate is nearly 90% before it has spread to other tissues. But more than half of oral cancers have spread to nearby structures when the cancer is detected.


Is Mouth Cancer Hard or Soft?

In the early stages, oral cancer can be soft, but it will usually get hard as it progresses, sometimes rock hard. As the tumor gets bigger, the tissues surrounding it will also become hard as the tumor invades them.


Can Mouth Cancer Be Aggressive?

Mouth cancer can be very aggressive in the final stage 4, where it has grown into nearby tissue or spread to lymph nodes on the body's opposite side.


Can a Dentist Diagnose Oral Cancer by Just Examining the Oral Cavity?

The dentist cannot diagnose cancer during an examination because, in an oral cancer screening examination, the dentist will look over the mouth inside to check for any mouth sores, red, and white patches or to identify any suspicious-looking areas or growths. Therefore, oral cancer can be diagnosed only with a biopsy where the tissue sample from the affected area is removed and analyzed under a microscope.


What Are the Foods Good For Mouth Cancer?

Good nutrition is necessary during cancer treatment. The foods good for oral cancer include:
- Plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Whole-grain bread and cereals.
- Lean cuts of meats such as fish, chicken, or turkey.
- Low-fat dairy products.


Can Mouth Cancer Be Cured Without Surgery?

Yes, mouth cancer can be cured without surgery, but with proper medication and a balanced healthy diet.


Can Turmeric Be Helpful In Mouth Cancer?

Turmeric is very helpful in mouth cancer because the curcumin, which is present in turmeric and gives its bright yellow color, possesses anti-cancer properties and effectively controls and eliminates cancerous growth. Dietary turmeric reduces the risk of cancer and prevents metastasis (spread of cancer throughout the body). Turmeric also has the property of reversing the pre-cancerous changes in the mouth.


How Can Oral Cancer Be Diagnosed?

To diagnose oral cancer, the doctor or dentist will initially perform a physical examination of the oral cavity by closely examining the roof and floor of the mouth, the back of your throat, tongue, and cheeks, and the lymph nodes in your neck. If the doctor finds any tumors, growths, or suspicious lesions, they will perform a brush biopsy or a tissue biopsy to be examined under a microscope for cancerous cells. The doctor may also recommend performing one or more of the following tests:
- A CT (computed tomography) scan.
- A PET (positron emission tomography) scan.
- An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan.
- An endoscopy.


Can Oral Cancer Spread Quickly?

Oral cancer takes about months to spread to nearby structures of the mouth and the neck lymph glands. The cure rate is nearly 90% if the cancer is diagnosed before it has spread to nearby structures. But usually, more than half of oral cancers have already spread when the cancer is detected.


Can Oral Cancer Be Healed Effectively?

At the earliest stage of mouth cancer, almost minor surgeries and medications can remove the cancerous cells and ensure that cancer will never return. The chance of survival is higher after treatment if the cancer is detected earlier.
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Dr. Lochana .k
Dr. Lochana .k



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