Frequently Asked Questions About Oral Cancer

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about oral cancer:

Q: What is the oral cavity?

A: The oral cavity is your mouth. It includes these parts.

  • Lips

  • Teeth

  • Gums

  • Lining inside the lips and cheeks, called buccal mucosa

  • Front of the tongue

  • Bottom of the mouth

  • Glands that make saliva

  • Bony roof of the mouth, called hard palate

Some parts at the back of your mouth are not considered part of the oral cavity. Instead, they are part of the oropharynx. These include:

  • Back of the tongue, also called the base of the tongue

  • Back of the roof of the mouth

  • Tonsils

Every part of the mouth has an important function. For example, the lips help with talking. The tongue helps with speaking and aids swallowing. The gums protect the teeth. Salivary glands in the mouth make saliva. This liquid keeps the mouth wet and helps digest food. Cancers of the oral cavity can make eating, speaking, or even breathing difficult.

Q:What is oral cancer?

A: Oral cancer is one of the cancers that occurs in the head and neck area. Oral cancer starts in the mouth or oral cavity. Oral cancer is common. If a doctor finds and treats it early, it is very curable. A doctor or dentist can usually spot oral cancer with a routine mouth exam. Of all people who get oral cancer, 90 percent smoke or use tobacco. Drinking alcohol is also a risk factor for oral cancer.

Q:What are the different types of oral cancer tumors?

A: More than 90 percent of all oral cavity tumors are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells make up the lining of the oral cavity. This lining is also called the mucosa. Less common types of oral cancer are these tumors of the salivary glands.

  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma

  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma

  • Polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma

Q:How does smoking affect oral cancer?

A: Tobacco use is the single most important risk factor in getting oral cancer. People who smoke or chew tobacco, dip snuff, or smoke pipes have a much higher chance of getting oral cancer than people who do not use tobacco. About 90 percent of all cases of oral cancer are people who use tobacco. The more tobacco is used and the longer it’s used, the higher the risk.

Q: Is oral cancer preventable?

A: Yes. Some risks are within a person’s control, such as using tobacco and drinking a lot of alcohol.

People who don’t smoke or use tobacco have a lower risk of oral cancer. Their risk of developing cancer in other parts of the body is also lower. Smokers are also at risk for cancer in other organs, including:

  • Lungs

  • Larynx

  • Lip, oral cavity, and pharynx

  • Esophagus

  • Bladder

  • Kidney

  • Pancreas

  • Stomach

Q:What are they symptoms of oral cancer?

A: These are the symptoms of oral cancer.

  • A sore on your lip or in the mouth that will not heal

  • A lump on your lip, in the mouth, or in the throat

  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth

  • Unusual bleeding, pain, or numbness in the mouth

  • A feeling of something caught in the throat

  • Difficulty or pain when chewing or swallowing

  • Swelling around the jaw

  • Loose or painful teeth

  • A lump, swelling, or mass in the neck that doesn’t go away

  • Weight loss that is unexpected

  • A change in the voice

  • Ear pain

Q:What is leukoplakia?

A: Leukoplakia is a white patch that some people get on the inside of their mouth. The patch doesn’t come off if gently rubbed. People who use tobacco and alcohol often get leukoplakia. In about 25 percent of cases, it is precancerous, which means it leads to cancer. If a doctor or dentist finds this lesion in the oral cavity, it should be checked by a doctor who treats people with oral cancer.

Q: What is erythroplakia?

A: Erythroplakia is a red, slightly raised patch that some people get on the inside of their mouth. Erythroplakia is more serious than leukoplakia. In about 70 percent of the cases, it is precancerous, meaning it leads to cancer. If a doctor or dentist finds this lesion in the oral cavity, it should be checked by a doctor who treats people with oral cancer.

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion for a diagnosis of oral cancer?

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