What is Mouth Cancer?

mouth cancer

Cancer is always a difficult subject. It’s one of the great public health fears of the 20th and 21st centuries but the fact is that a great deal of misinformation about cancer exists. The key thing to remember is that cancer isn’t just one disease, but rather a host of different illnesses with a variety of causes.

So with all that in mind, what is mouth cancer exactly? What causes it and what are the signs and symptoms? How is it treated? It’s a complex subject but let’s take a look.

Definitions and Causes

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, is any cancer of the lips, gums, inner mouth, or upper throat. While the science behind them isn’t fully understood yet, mouth cancers are linked to a variety of risk factors that increase the chance of contracting some form of oral cancer. These include:

  • Tobacco is probably the single greatest contributing risk factor to oral cancer. Individuals who use tobacco are demonstrably at greater risk of getting various forms of oral cancer, with chewing tobacco seeming to be the worst of the bunch.
  • Alcohol is also a risk factor in the development of oral cancers, although far less so than tobacco. Excessive use of alcohol has many negative effects on oral health and mouth cancers are one of them.
  • Human papillomavirus is linked to several different cancers, albeit by a not-fully-understood process. For oral cancers, human papillomavirus is linked to cancers of the tonsils, base of the tongue, and upper throat. Exposure to human papillomavirus can happen in a number of ways, but the disease is most often sexually transmitted.
  • Premalignant lesions are both a risk factor and a warning sign of oral cancer. Defined by the ADA as “a benign, morphologically altered tissue that has a greater than normal risk of malignant transformation” they are just that–an anomalous patch of tissue that starts out benign but has a risk of becoming cancer. These look like red, white, or mixed red/white patches or scaly regions on the lips, tongue, or gums.

Signs and Symptoms

There are a handful of warning signs that mouth cancer may be a possibility. If you experience any of these symptoms in a persistent way, please contact your dentist or physician as soon as you can.

  • Red, white, or mixed color scaly or hard patches on the tissues of the mouth are a sign that cancer may be developing.
  • Sores and painful places in the tissues of the mouth can likewise be a symptom, particularly if they persist for a while.
  • Swelling in your neck or cheek
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Feeling like something is caught in your throat
  • Trouble moving your jaw or tongue
  • Weight loss
  • Constant bad breath

Most forms of oral cancer are potentially treatable if caught early, so at the first sign of trouble please let your health care provider know about your concerns.


The method of treatment for mouth cancer will depend on the variety of cancer, its location, and the individual circumstances of the patient. Treatment methods may include surgically removing the tumor or cancerous tissue or treating the cancer site with radiation or chemotherapy. Should cancer progress to the point that it needs treatment, the medical professionals may suggest a variety of lifestyle changes to help manage care and reduce the risk of recurrence.

Oral cancer is not a fun subject, but it’s important to understand what it is, what causes it, and how to stop it. Hopefully, you’ll never need that information, but should the worst happen you’ll at least have some understanding of what’s going on.