What Do Early Stages of Mouth Cancer Look Like?

Reviewed on 12/28/2020

What Is Mouth Cancer?

Early signs of mouth cancer include a sore in the mouth that doesn't heal; a white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsils, or lining of the mouth; or loose teeth.
Early signs of mouth cancer include a sore in the mouth that doesn't heal; a white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsils, or lining of the mouth; or loose teeth.

Mouth cancer (oral cavity cancer or oral cancer) is cancer that occurs when cells in the mouth grow out of control. 

The oral cavity includes: 

  • The lips
  • The inside lining of the lips and cheeks (buccal mucosa)
  • The teeth
  • The gums
  • The front two-thirds of the tongue
  • The floor of the mouth below the tongue
  • The bony roof of the mouth (hard palate)
  • The area behind the wisdom teeth (retromolar trigone) may be included as a part of the oral cavity, but it's usually considered part of the oropharynx

What Are Symptoms of Mouth Cancer?

Early stages of mouth cancer may look like:

  • Sore in the mouth that doesn't heal (the most common symptom)
  • White or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsils, or lining of the mouth
  • Loose teeth 
  • Lump or thickening in the cheek
  • Lump or mass in the neck

Other symptoms of mouth (oral cavity) cancers include:

  • Pain in the mouth that doesn’t go away (also very common)
  • Sore throat 
  • Feeling that something is stuck in the throat 
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness of the tongue or other part of the mouth
  • Jaw swelling that results in dentures not fitting properly or becoming uncomfortable
  • Pain around the teeth or jaw
  • Changes in voice
  • Weight loss
  • Constant bad breath

What Causes Mouth Cancer?

The exact cause of mouth cancer is not known, but risk factors for developing mouth cancer include: 

  • Smoking and tobacco use 
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections
  • Betel quid and gutka use 
    • Betel quid is made of areca nut (betel nut), spices, lime, and other ingredients
    • It is commonly chewed in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and other areas of the world
  • Gender
    • Twice as common in men as in women
    • It is thought this is due to more men using tobacco and alcohol 
  • Age
    • Most oral cancers occur in adults over age 55
  • Ultraviolet (UV) light
    • Responsible for cancers of the lip in people who are exposed to sunlight for long periods of time
  • Poor nutrition
  • Diets low in fruits and vegetables are linked with an increased risk of oral cancers 
  • Weakened immune system
  • Lichen planus
  • Graft-versus-host disease
  • Certain genetic syndromes
    • Fanconi anemia 
    • Dyskeratosis 

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How Is Mouth Cancer Diagnosed?

Mouth cancer is diagnosed with a patient history and a physical examination of the mouth, head, and neck. 

Tests used to confirm a diagnosis of oral cancer include: 

What Is the Treatment for Mouth Cancer?

Treatment for mouth (oral cavity) cancers includes:

What Is the Life Expectancy for Mouth Cancer?

Life expectancy for mouth (oral cavity) cancers is often expressed in 5-year survival rates, that is, how many people will be alive 5 years after diagnosis. 

Lip cancer 5-year survival rates:

  • Localized (no sign the cancer has spread outside the organ where it started, for example, the lip, tongue, or floor of mouth): 92%
  • Regional (cancer has spread to nearby structures or lymph nodes): 60%
  • Distant (cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as to the lungs): 28%

Tongue cancer 5-year survival rates:

  • Localized (no sign the cancer has spread outside the organ where it started, for example, the lip, tongue, or floor of mouth): 81%
  • Regional (cancer has spread to nearby structures or lymph nodes): 68%
  • Distant (cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as to the lungs): 39%

Floor of the mouth cancer 5-year survival rates:

  • Localized (no sign the cancer has spread outside the organ where it started, for example, the lip, tongue, or floor of mouth): 77%
  • Regional (cancer has spread to nearby structures or lymph nodes): 38%
  • Distant (cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as to the lungs): 20%

How Do You Prevent Mouth Cancer?

Some cases of mouth (oral) cancers can be prevented. 

  • Don’t smoke and avoid tobacco use
  • Limit or avoid alcohol use
  • Get the HPV vaccine (Gardasil, Cervarix) to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Limit exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Wear properly fitted dentures
  • Treat pre-cancerous growths such as leukoplakia or erythroplakia

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Reviewed on 12/28/2020
References
https://www.cancer.org/cancer/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer.html