When you have cancer, you need a supportive environment and compassionate medical care. At Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute, our oral, head and neck cancer specialists blend a gentle approach to care with world-recognized expertise and innovations to detect and treat your specific cancer.

We’ll work with you to create a personalized treatment plan that meets your unique needs. By collaborating with other world-renowned cancer researchers and incorporating groundbreaking discoveries, our experts design the best, most effective therapies for you.

What is oral cavity cancer?

Oral cavity cancer is also called mouth cancer. It’s a type of head and neck cancer that develops when cancerous (malignant) cells form in your lips or mouth. Oral cavity cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer. More than 90 percent of these cancers occur in the squamous cells that line your mouth, tongue and lips. Squamous cells are also found in your skin and respiratory tract.

Oral cavity cancer is closely linked to pharyngeal (oral pharyngeal) cancer. The oral cavity and pharynx are close to each other within the head and neck.

Medical illustration of head and neck cancer regions.

The oral cavity includes the first two-thirds of the tongue. It also includes the:

  • Floor of the mouth under the tongue
  • Gums
  • Hard palate on the roof of the mouth
  • Lining inside the cheeks
  • Retromolar trigone (small area behind the wisdom teeth)

Types of Oral Cavity Cancer

There are four main types of oral cavity cancer.

  • Gum cancer: This cancer is often mistaken for gingivitis. The cancer starts in your upper or lower gums. Over time, you form lesions or tumors. Gum cancer that is detected and diagnosed early is highly curable. Dentists typically notice the first signs during routine dental examinations.
  • Jaw cancer: Primary jaw cancer usually starts in your jawbones. Cancer that spreads to your jaw from other tissues is called secondary jaw cancer. Tumors from both primary and secondary jaw cancer can destroy bone.
  • Lip cancer: This disease develops when cancerous cells form on or in your lips. Most lip cancers start in the squamous cells and spread into deeper tissues over time. Some lip cancers don’t cause symptoms. However, you may notice leukoplakias — abnormal patches of white tissue — or other types of sores that don’t heal. Lip cancer is also frequently detected during routine dental exams.
  • Tongue cancer: This cancer develops in the front two-thirds of the tongue. The most common type is called squamous cell carcinoma.

Symptoms of Oral Cavity Cancer

Many of the signs of oral cancer can be caused by a different cancer or another noncancerous condition. So, early detection is important to make sure you get the right treatment. Talk to your doctor if any of these symptoms linger for more than two weeks:

  • Dentures that start to fit poorly
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • Loose teeth
  • Lump in your neck or back of your throat
  • Lump or thickening of your cheek, lips or mouth
  • Mouth pain that lingers
  • Numbness of your lip, tongue or other area of your mouth
  • Sore on your lip or mouth that won’t heal
  • Sore throat that lingers
  • Swelling or pain in your jaw
  • Trouble moving your jaw or tongue
  • Vocal changes
  • Weight loss

According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for oral cavity cancer that hasn’t spread is 94 percent. If the cancer spreads to surrounding tissues or organs, the five-year survival rate drops to 38 percent.

Risk Factors for Oral Cavity Cancer

Oral cavity cancer can significantly impact your health and well-being. But, when it’s detected early, this cancer is highly treatable. So, it’s important to know your risk factors for developing oral cavity cancer.

While having risk factors doesn’t mean you will develop oral cavity cancer, they will put you at an increased risk. Our specialists at Baptist Health Miami Cancer Institute can help you identify and understand your risk factors.

The greatest risk factors for oral cavity cancer include:

  • Extended exposure to natural sunlight or artificial light (like tanning beds)
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Tobacco use

Other risk factors can include:

  • Age over 60 years (only one-quarter of patients with oral cavity cancer are under age 55)
  • Being male (oral cavity cancer is twice as common in males than females)
  • Exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Having a weakened immune system

Preventing Oral Cavity Cancer

Oral cavity cancer is highly preventable. Changing your lifestyle behaviors can reduce your chances for developing this condition. Some prevention strategies include:

  • Avoiding tobacco in any form
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Limiting sun exposure (especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when ultraviolet [UV] rays are strongest)
  • Wearing lip balm with SPF 30 or higher (reapply frequently)

Regular primary care and dental care are vital to monitoring your oral health. These check-ups can reveal signs or symptoms of cancer that may not be obvious.

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