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Mouth cancer

What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer, also called oral cancer, describes a cancerous tumour, growth or sore developing in the mouth.

This might be:

  • On the tongue
  • Inside the cheeks
  • On the palate (roof of the mouth)
  • On the lips
  • On the gums.

Mouth cancer is related to throat cancer affecting the throat (pharynx).

Mouth cancer can be life-threatening if it is not diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Mouth cancer can develop in the mouth itself, called primary oral cancer. It can also spread to the mouth from cancer elsewhere in the body. This is called secondary oral cancer, or metastatic oral cancer.

What are the symptoms of oral cancer?

Symptoms of mouth cancer include:

  • Mouth ulcers that are sore and haven’t healed after some weeks
  • Long-term lumps in the mouth with no obvious cause
  • Long-term lumps in the lymph glands in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing, painful swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Voice changes
  • Speech problems
  • Unplanned weight loss
  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • Feeling of numbness in the mouth
  • Dental problems without obvious causes, including loose teeth, or socket problems that do not heal after some time.
  • Problems moving the jaw.

Red patches or white patches seen on the lining of your mouth are common, and are not usually cancer - but should be checked to make sure.

Causes of mouth cancer

It isn't always known why some people develop mouth cancer - but doctors do know some things increase the chances of DNA changes in the mouth that can turn into cancer.

The main risk factors are:

  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy diet - not eating enough fruit and vegetables
  • Alcohol abuse - drinking more than the recommended guidelines suggest
  • Chewing tobacco, use of other tobacco products, including snuff and smokeless tobacco
  • Chewing betel nuts, popular in some south east Asian communities
  • Some types of human papilloma virus infection ( HPV) - this is a sexually transmitted infection, including through oral sex
  • Poor oral hygiene, not looking after teeth and gums well enough with tooth brushing and other techniques a dentist may recommend, like flossing.

Other risk factors include:

  • UV radiation from the sun causing lip cancers
  • Having previous cancers
  • Having a close family history of cancer
  • Exposure to toxic substances, like asbestos.

Mouth cancer diagnosis

Problems in the mouth may be diagnosed by a doctor or dentist.

They may be diagnosed after booking an appointment for a specific symptom or pain - or may be picked up during a routine dental examination.

Once cancer is suspected, a referral to a cancer specialist will usually be made.

Diagnosis will involve examining the mouth, asking about symptoms and checking the person's medical history.

A sample of tissue from the mouth may be taken for laboratory analysis to see if cancer is present. This is called a biopsy. The way this is done will depend on the location of the suspected cancer. It may involve a scalpel or needle technique. Anaesthetic may be needed to numb the pain while the sample is taken. Stitches may be needed afterwards.

Further tests may be arranged to check for the cancer spreading. These may include:

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