Mouth cancer (also known as oral cancer) is when an abnormal group of cells, known as a tumour, develops on the surface of the tongue, mouth, lips or gums.
Less commonly, it can occur in the salivary glands, tonsils and the part of the throat leading from your mouth to your windpipe (the pharynx).
Symptoms of mouth cancer include:
- one or more mouth ulcers that do not heal
- red, or red and white, patches on the lining of your mouth or tongue
- a swelling in your mouth that lasts for more than three weeks
Read more about the symptoms of mouth cancer.
There are three main treatment options for mouth cancer:
- surgery – where the surgeon removes the cancerous cells, and in some cases, some of the surrounding tissue
- chemotherapy – where powerful medications are used to kill cancerous cells
- radiotherapy – where high energy X-rays are used to kill cancerous cells
These treatments are often used in combination. For example, a course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy may be given after surgery to help prevent the cancer from returning.
Read more about the treatment of mouth cancer.
Both surgery and radiotherapy can make it difficult to speak and to swallow, which is known as dysphagia.
Dysphagia is a potentially serious problem because small pieces of food could enter your airways and become lodged in your lungs. This can trigger a chest infection, known as aspiration pneumonia.
Read more about the complications of mouth cancer.
What causes mouth cancer?
Mouth cancer occurs when something goes wrong with the normal lifecycle of cells causing them to grow and reproduce in an uncontrollable and dangerous fashion.
Things known to increase your risk of developing mouth cancer include:
- drinking alcohol (smokers who are also heavy drinkers have a much higher risk when compared to the population at large)
- infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is the virus that causes genital warts
- eating a diet that contains lots of red meat and fried food
Read more about the causes of mouth cancer.
Reducing the risk
The three most effective ways to prevent mouth cancer (or prevent it from recurring after successful treatment) are:
- quit smoking
- stick to the recommended weekly limits for alcohol consumption (21 units for men, 14 units for women – read more about alcohol units)
- eat a 'Mediterranean-style diet', high in fresh vegetables (particularly tomatoes), citrus fruits, olive oil and fish – read more about healthy eating
You should also have regular dental check-0ups as dentists can often spot the early stages of mouth cancer.
Who is affected
Mouth cancer is an uncommon cancer accounting for 1 in 50 of all cases of cancer.
There were just over 6,200 new cases of mouth cancer diagnosed in the UK during 2009 (the latest year from which reliable data is available).
The majority of mouth cancer cases first develop in older adults aged around 60.
Although cases can occur in younger adults, it is thought that infection with HPV may be responsible for most cases in younger people.
Mouth cancer is more common in men than women. This is thought to be due to the fact that, on average, men drink more alcohol than women.
If diagnosed at an early stage, a complete cure is often possible using a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.
An estimated four out of five people with early-stage mouth cancer will live at least five years after their diagnosis, and many for a lot longer.
If diagnosed at an advanced stage, when the cancer has spread out of the mouth and into surrounding tissue, the outlook is poor; only one in five people will live for at least five years after their diagnosis.