Oral cancer occurs when the genetic material of cells in the mouth become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. The abnormal cells then replicate, causing cancer. If undetected, the cancer can spread beyond the mouth and move to other parts of the body.

Risks and causes of oral cancer

The precise causes of oral cancer are unknown, but it is thought that risk factors include smoking, drinking alcohol or infection with the human papilloma virus. Mouth cancer is an uncommon type of cancer, accounting for one in 50 of all cancer cases. Mouth cancer is more common in men than in women.

Symptoms of oral cancer

Mouth cancer can develop on most parts of the mouth, including the lips, gums and occasionally, the throat. The most common symptoms of mouth cancer include:

  • Red or white patches in the mouth or throat
  • A lump
  • Ulcers

Other symptoms may include:

  • Persistent pain in the mouth
  • Pain or difficulty when swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Changes in your voice, or speech problems
  • Swollen lymph nodes (glands) in your neck
  • A tooth, or teeth, that becomes loose for no obvious reason
  • Difficulty moving your jaw

Mouth cancer tends not to cause any noticeable symptoms during the initial stages of the disease. This is why it is important to have regular dental check-ups, particularly if you are a smoker, a heavy drinker or a betel chewer, because a dentist may often be able to detect the condition during an examination.

Many of the symptoms listed above can be caused by less serious conditions, such as minor infections, but it’s strongly recommended that you visit your GP if any of the symptoms listed above have lasted for more than three weeks.

If any of these symptoms apply to you, or if you have any concerns about similar symptoms, it is essential that you see your doctor at once, as your chances of recovery are much higher if your cancer is diagnosed early.

How is oral cancer diagnosed?

your consultant or oncologist will advise you on which tests are relevant to your individual symptoms. As there are usually few symptoms during the early stages of mouth cancer, it is vital that when symptoms appear diagnosis is swift and accurate. Tests include:

  • A physical examination of the area
  • Panendoscopy: a detailed examination of your nose and throat using a series of small telescopes connected together
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • X-ray
  • A biopsy: cell samples are taken for examination for signs of cancer, usually during an endoscopy
  • Fine Needle Aspiration: a piece of tissue is taken from a lump, using a very thin needle

Treatment of oral cancer

Patients with oral cancer are treated by a specialist multidisciplinary team. This team works together to create a treatment plan to suit the individual needs of the patient. There are three main treatment options for mouth cancer. They are:

  • Surgery: the cancerous cells are surgically removed and, in some cases, some of the surrounding tissue
  • Radiotherapy 
  • Chemotherapy
  • Biotherapy
  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT): a technique for treating skin cancers and sun-damaged skin, where a special light activates a cream which has been applied to the affected area of skin, killing the abnormal cells in the skin