Oral Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions

March 23, 2017

Oral Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions

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

What is the oral cavity?

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, called the soft palate 

  • Tonsils

  • The sides and back of the throat

Every part of the mouth has an important function. For example, the lips help with talking. The tongue helps with speaking and 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 and oropharynx can make eating, speaking, or even breathing difficult.

What is oral cancer?

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, the majority smoke or use tobacco. Drinking alcohol is also a risk factor for oral cancer.

What are the different types of oral cancer tumors?

More than 90% 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

How does smoking affect oral cancer?

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. The more tobacco is used and the longer it’s used, the higher the risk.

Can oral cancer be prevented?

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

  • Pharynx

  • Esophagus

  • Bladder

  • Kidney

  • Pancreas

  • Stomach

What are they symptoms of oral cancer?

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

  • Bad breath

What is leukoplakia?

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 some 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 specializes in treating people with oral cancer.

What is erythroplakia?

Erythroplakia is a red, slightly raised patch that some people get on the inside of their mouth. Erythroplakia is more serious than leukoplakia. In the majority of 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 specializes in treating people with oral cancer.

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

Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. There are many reasons to get one. Here are some of those reasons:

  • Not feeling comfortable with the treatment decision

  • Being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer

  • Having several options for how to treat the cancer

  • Not being able to see a cancer expert

Many people with oral cancer have a hard time deciding which treatment to have. It may help to have a second doctor review the diagnosis and treatment options before starting treatment. It is important to remember that in most cases, a short delay in treatment will not lower the chance that the treatment will work. Some health insurance companies even require that a person with cancer seek a second opinion, and many companies will pay for a second opinion if asked.

How can I get a second opinion?

There are many ways to get a second opinion:

  • Ask a primary care doctor. He or she may be able to suggest a specialist. This may be a surgeon, medical oncologist, or radiation oncologist. Sometimes these doctors work together at cancer centers or hospitals. Never be afraid to ask for a second opinion.

  • Call the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service. The number is 800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237). Or check the website for information about treatment facilities. These include cancer centers and other programs supported by the National Cancer Institute.

  • Seek other options. Check with a local medical society, a nearby hospital or medical school, or support group to get names of doctors who can give you a second opinion. Ask other people who’ve had cancer for their recommendations.

How is oral cancer treated?

Most cases of oral cancer are curable. Many cases of oral cancer are treated with surgery. There are several types of surgery used. If major surgery is done, the surgeon may also rebuild parts of the oral cavity to preserve the appearance and function of the mouth. Radiation therapy is also used to treat and cure oral cancer. It may be used with surgery. Chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery, or used alone when the cancer is diagnosed in a later stage. Effective chemotherapy can control further spread of the cancer.

What are clinical trials?

Clinical trials are studies of new kinds of cancer treatments. Doctors use clinical trials to learn how well new treatments work and what their side effects are. Promising treatments are ones that work better or have fewer side effects than the current treatments. People who participate in these studies get to use treatments before the FDA approves them for the public. People who join trials also help researchers learn more about cancer and help future cancer patients.


March 23, 2017


NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines Head and Neck Cancers Version 2.2013. National Comprehensive Cancer Network

Reviewed By:  

Gersten, Todd, MD,Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS