Mouth Cancer

About mouth cancer

Mouth cancer is the result of cells in your mouth growing abnormally and out of control. It’s sometimes referred to as oral cancer. Around one in 55 men and one in 108 women in the UK will be diagnosed with mouth cancer at some point in their lifetime*.

The earlier mouth cancer is diagnosed, the more effective treatment is likely to be. So it’s important to recognise any symptoms and get them checked out by a dentist or doctor as soon as you can.

Mouth cancer can start anywhere in your mouth, including:

  • Your cheek lining and inside of your lip
  • The floor of your mouth and undersurface of your tongue
  • The edges of your tongue
  • Your gums, including the triangle area of the gum behind your back teeth

Nine out of 10 mouth cancers grow in the flat, skin-like cells that line the inside of your mouth. These are called squamous cell carcinomas.

Other, rarer types of mouth cancer include:

  • Salivary gland cancer, which starts in your salivary gland cells
  • Lymphoma, which can start in lymph tissue near the base of your tongue and tonsils
  • Melanoma, which can start in skin pigment cells in your mouth or on your lips

Symptoms of mouth cancer

You might not notice any symptoms at first if you have mouth cancer. But as the cancer progresses, you may start to develop different symptoms depending on which part of your mouth is affected. These can include:

  • A lump in your mouth or on your lip that doesn’t go away after a couple of weeks
  • An ulcer in your mouth that isn't healing
  • A lump in your neck or enlarged lymph nodes in your neck
  • A sore throat that you’ve had for a long time, and doesn’t seem to be getting better
  • Difficulty or pain when chewing or swallowing
  • Unexplained bleeding in your mouth
  • Difficulty moving your jaw
  • Red, or red and white patches in your mouth
  • Numbness of your lip or another part of your mouth
  • Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit you properly
  • Difficulties with your speech – you may sound hoarse or quieter, or you may slur your words
  • Pain in your ear – caused by damage to a nerve near your tongue
  • Unexplained weight loss

These symptoms aren't necessarily signs of mouth cancer, but if you have any of them, see your dentist.

Diagnosis of mouth cancer

Your dentist might spot the early signs of mouth cancer during a routine check-up.

If you see your dentist with symptoms of mouth cancer, they’ll ask you some questions about your symptoms and your medical history. They may ask to examine your mouth, as well as feel your neck and face to check for swellings.

If your dentist thinks your symptoms could be due to mouth cancer, they will refer you to a doctor specialising in mouth cancer.

The specialist may want to take a biopsy (a small sample of tissue) from the affected area. This will be sent to a lab for testing to check if there are any cancerous cells. If the affected area is in a place they can access easily, they may just give you a local anaesthetic to numb the area and gently remove a small piece of tissue.

Sometimes, your doctor may need to use a special instrument called a nasoendoscope or laryngoscope to look at the affected area and take a biopsy. These are narrow, flexible tubes that can be passed up your nose and into your throat.

Treatment of mouth cancer

If you're found to have cancer, you will usually need to have other tests to see how big your cancer is and whether it’s spread. This is called staging. Staging can help doctors estimate how your cancer is likely to progress, and what the best course of treatment is for you.

What treatment you’re offered will depend on what type of mouth cancer you have, where it is and how far it’s spread. Your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you. If you smoke, they will encourage you to stop before you start any treatment. This is because smoking can increase your risk of complications and reduce the chance that treatment will work.

You will usually be offered surgery or radiotherapy first. Your doctor may also suggest other non-surgical treatments, such as chemotherapy and biological therapy.


The aim of surgery is to remove all of the cancer. Exactly what type of surgery you’ll need will depend on where your cancer is, how big it is and whether it’s spread. Your surgeon will explain what they’re planning and what to expect afterwards.

Causes of mouth cancer

The most common causes of mouth cancer are smoking and drinking more alcohol than recommended.

Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is also thought to cause cancer of the mouth in some people. You’re at greater risk of HPV-associated mouth cancer the more sexual partners you have, especially if you have oral sex.

Prevention of mouth cancer

Making some simple lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of mouth cancer. These include the following.

  • If you smoke or chew tobacco, try to stop
  • Cut down your alcohol consumption, ensuring you don’t exceed the 14 units per week advised by the NHS (14 units is equivalent to 6 pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.)
  • Look after your teeth and visit your dentist for regular check-ups. Your dentist will look for signs of mouth cancer during every check-up
  • Make sure you are following a healthy, balanced diet, with plenty of fruit and vegetables

If you think you might have mouth cancer or are concerned about potential symptoms, get in touch with your dentist as soon as possible. If you need a new dentist, find your local Bupa Dental Care practice.

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Bupa Dental Care is a trading name of Oasis Dental Care Limited. Registered in England and Wales No: 00478127. Registered office: Bupa Dental Care, Vantage Office Park, Old Gloucester Road, Hambrook, Bristol, United Kingdom BS16 1GW.

Oasis Dental Care Limited has a number of trading names including Bupa Dental Care. For a list of all our different trading names please follow this link.

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