This factsheet is for people who have mouth cancer, or who would like information about it, including symptoms, causes and treatments.
Mouth cancer (oral cancer) is caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the mouth.
Mouth cancer includes cancer that starts anywhere in your mouth, including:
Nearly 5,400 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer every year in the UK. Most of these people are over the age of 50, and it affects more men than women.
Nine out of 10 mouth cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. They develop in the flat, skin-like cells that cover the inside of your mouth. Other, rarer types of mouth cancer include:
The two most common symptoms of mouth cancer are:
Other symptoms can include:
These symptoms aren't always caused by mouth cancer but if you have any of them, see your GP or dentist.
The exact reasons why you may develop mouth cancer aren't fully understood at present. However, you may be more likely to develop mouth cancer if you:
The earlier mouth cancer is diagnosed, the better your chances of recovery. Your dentist may spot mouth cancer in its early stages during a routine check-up, so it's important to visit your dentist regularly.
Your GP or dentist will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. Your GP or dentist will feel your neck and face to check for swellings and may refer you to a head and neck specialist for further tests.
You may have the following tests to confirm a diagnosis of mouth cancer.
If you're found to have cancer, you may need to have other tests to assess if the cancer has spread. The process of finding out the stage of a cancer is called staging. The tests may include the following.
Your treatment will depend on the type of mouth cancer you have, where it is and how far it has spread. Your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you. There are three main treatments for mouth cancer. These are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Surgery (including the use of lasers) involves removing the affected tissue. Your surgeon may also need to remove the lymph nodes in your neck or other affected tissues in your mouth and neck. How much surgery you need will depend on how much tissue is affected.
If you have surgery to remove a small tumour in your mouth, it may not cause you any lasting problems but if you have a larger tumour, your surgeon may need to remove part of your palate, tongue, or jaw. This surgery may change your ability to chew, swallow, or talk and your face may look different after surgery. You may need to have reconstructive or plastic surgery to rebuild the bones or tissues in your mouth.
Surgery is sometimes followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment to make sure all the cancer cells are destroyed.
Non-surgical treatments include the following.
Radiotherapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells. A beam of radiation is targeted on the cancerous cells, which shrinks the tumour. Much less commonly, a source of radioactivity will be implanted in your mouth. This is called brachytherapy. Radiotherapy can now be targeted to the area that needs treating to prevent damaging normal tissues close by.
Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. They are usually injected into a vein but are sometimes available as tablets. Chemotherapy is often used in combination with radiotherapy. Radiotherapy targets the area of cancer and chemotherapy may kill cancer cells that have moved elsewhere in your body.
Biological therapy changes the activity of cancer cells. Cetuximab is a type of biological therapy that is known as a monoclonal antibody. Cetuximab blocks areas on the surface of cancer cells that can trigger growth. You may have it along with radiotherapy and chemotherapy, if you have advanced squamous mouth or oropharyngeal cancer.
Making some simple lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of mouth cancer. These include the following.
Being diagnosed with cancer can be distressing for you and your family. An important part of cancer treatment is having support to deal with the emotional aspects as well as the physical symptoms. Specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the support you need, and may also visit you at home. If you have more advanced cancer, further support is available to you in hospices or at home, this is called palliative care.
Published by Rebecca Canvin, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.