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Home > Patient & Family Resources > Health Library > Oral Cancer
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Oral cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in any part of the mouth or lips. Most oral cancers start in the lining of the lips or mouth where you have thin, flat cells called squamous cells.
This type of cancer may also be called oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer.
Risk factors (things that increase your risk) for oral cancer include smoking (or using smokeless tobacco) and heavy alcohol use. Other risk factors are being male, using marijuana, or having human papillomavirus (HPV). For cancers of the lip, exposure over a long period of time to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or from tanning beds increases risk.
Symptoms for oral cancer include sores or lumps on the lips or in your mouth. Talk with your doctor if you have any of these signs:
Your dentist or doctor may look closely at your lips, mouth, or throat to check for signs of oral cancer. Other tests may be needed if there are possible signs of cancer, such as a biopsy, an X-ray, or an MRI.
Oral cancer is usually treated with surgery and radiation therapy. Your treatment will depend on the stage of your cancer and your other health factors. If the cancer is advanced, other treatments may be used. You may get chemotherapy. Or chemotherapy and targeted therapy may be used together.
You can find more information about oral cancer at the National Cancer Institute website www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/oral.
Researchers are studying how people can make changes in their lifestyles to reduce their risk for cancer. One lifestyle change that may reduce the risk for oral cancer is eating more fruits and fiber-rich vegetables.
Take the following steps to prevent oral cancer:
Some combinations, such as using tobacco and drinking alcohol, increase the risk more than using tobacco or drinking alcohol. The same is true for using marijuana if you have high-risk HPV infection.
Treatment for oral cancer is usually provided by a team of doctors who are experts in treating head and neck cancers. The team may include a medical oncologist, a head and neck surgeon, an oral (maxillofacial) surgeon, or a radiation oncologist. Depending on your treatment, you may have help from other specialists, such as a speech therapist or a plastic surgeon.
Clinical trials for oral cancer look at new ways to treat oral cancer. Treatments being studied include:
Sometimes a clinical trial offers the best treatment choice. Your medical team will let you know if there is a clinical trial that might be good for you. For more information, see www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials or http://clinicaltrials.gov.
Having cancer can change your life in many ways. For support in managing these changes, see the topic Getting Support When You Have Cancer.
Other Works Consulted
Chepeha DB, et al. (2015). Rehabilitation after treatment of head and neck cancer. In VT DeVita Jr et al., eds., DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer Principles and Practices of Oncology, 10th ed., pp. 474–481. Philadelphia: Walters Kluwer.
Lee N, et al. (2012). Benign and malignant lesions of the oral cavity, oropharynx and nasopharynx. In AK Lalwani, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, 3rd ed., pp. 377–386. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Mendenhall WM, et al. (2015). Cancer of the head and neck. In VT DeVita Jr et al., eds., DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg's Cancer Principles and Practices of Oncology, 10th ed., pp.422–473. Philadelphia: Walters Kluwer.
National Cancer Institute (2012). Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ)—Health Professional Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/lip-and-oral-cavity/HealthProfessional.
National Cancer Institute (2012). Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ)—Patient Version. Available online: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/lip-and-oral-cavity/patient.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (2012). Head and neck cancers. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology, version 1.2012. Available online: http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/PDF/head-and-neck.pdf.
Current as of: August 21, 2019
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineJimmy Ruiz, MD - Medical Oncology, Hematology
Current as of: August 21, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Jimmy Ruiz, MD - Medical Oncology, Hematology
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