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Oral Cavity Cancer

What is Oral Cavity Cancer?

Oral cavity cancer develops in the mouth specifically in the front two thirds of the mouth including the tongue, gums, and the inside of the cheeks. Cancer that grows in the back of the mouth/throat or back of the tongue or tonsils is referred to as oropharyngeal cancer.

There are some types of noncancerous (benign) tumors that can grow inside the oral cavity, but this page focuses on precancerous and cancerous growths.

Precancerous growths can occur inside the mouth and are often visible during a dental exam.

There are two types of precancerous growths: leukoplakia and erythroplakia. These can appear almost anywhere inside the mouth, including on the tongue.

  • Leukoplakia is patch of white or gray tissue.
  • Erythroplakia is a patch of tissue that is red, may be raised, and can bleed.
  • Erythroleukoplakia is a gray, white, and red patch of oral tissue

Oral cancer is a common type of cancer worldwide. More than 90 percent of all cancers occurring in the oral cavity are squamous cell carcinoma, meaning they develop in the squamous cell lining the mouth.

Other oral cancers can develop in connective tissue, lymph tissue (cells that function as the body's filtering system), melanocytes (skin pigment cells).

Not everyone who has risk factors develops a condition, and not everyone who has a condition had any risk factors for it. Still, risk factors are important to consider during a medical diagnosis. Possible risk factors for oral cancer include:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Smoking or using smokeless tobacco
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Health conditions that effect the immune system
  • Male sex — more men are affected than women
  • Age — it is more common in people over 50 years of age

Most cases of oral cancer can spread to nearby tissue, including the jaw bones. Oral cavity cancer can also spread throughout the body.

Oral cancer symptoms usually occur inside the mouth, but sometimes there is pain in the teeth or jaw. As with other types of head and neck cancer, some of the symptoms are common and can also be symptoms of other conditions that are not serious.

If the symptoms last longer than seems normal (which is generally about two weeks), you should visit a doctor. Symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Lumps or bumps inside your mouth
  • Soreness inside the mouth that does not disappear
  • Red or white patches (as described above)
  • Numbness in the tongue, or difficulty moving it
  • Jaw swelling or pain
  • Difficulty chewing or moving the jaw
  • Tooth pain or loose teeth
  • Bad breath
  • Lumps or bumps on your neck

Our experts provide personalized care for every person who comes through our doors. During an evaluation for oral cancer, your doctor will record your medical history and ask about any symptoms you've experienced. The doctor will thoroughly examine your head and neck, feeling for any swollen lymph nodes and looking inside your mouth.

If the doctor finds any areas inside your mouth that look suspicious, you may need to have a biopsy. A tissue biopsy can sometimes be performed in the office while you are awake, and the results will reveal whether the growth is cancerous or benign.

You may need other tests, such as:

Each person we treat at UPMC receives an individualized care plan. Our team will talk with you to determine what treatment will work best for you based on your test results, your health, and your goals for treatment.

Our experts may recommend one or some combination of the following therapies to treat your cancer. Additionally, UPMC Hillman has clinical trials including with immunotherapy that may be applicable to your cancer. 

Chemotherapy: During chemotherapy, medications are administered orally or through an IV. Chemotherapy can make you feel sick and can sometimes affect other organs like the liver, so your team will monitor your health closely during chemotherapy to watch for side effects.

Learn more about chemotherapy.

Radiation: Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or concentrated radioactive material to kill cancer cells. UPMC offers several types of radiation therapy, all of which have been developed to target the cancer and affect healthy tissue as little as possible. Radiation has some side effects, which may include dry mouth, skin problems, and fatigue.

Learn more about radiation therapy.

Surgery: UPMC offers innovative, cutting-edge surgical techniques to treat oral cavity cancer. The goal of surgical treatment is to remove as much cancer as possible while leaving healthy tissue alone. Minimally invasive surgery such as robotic surgery has several benefits, which include better surgical precision and shorter hospital stays.

Learn more about surgical options at UPMC.

UPMC has provided high-quality services to Pittsburgh, the surrounding areas, and to people around the world for more than 30 years.

Our team of experts who focus on head and neck cancer every day includes:

  • Ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists
  • Surgeons
  • Medical and radiation oncologists
  • Audiologists
  • Speech pathologists

We are a trusted national and international leader in head and neck cancer care, providing proven and cutting-edge services to each person we see, and conducting research to constantly improve the care we deliver.

Contact Us

To make an appointment for head and neck cancer care at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, call 412-647-2811.