Miami Cancer Institute’s Oral, Head and Neck Cancer specialists combine world-recognized medical expertise, innovation and compassionate care to detect and treat your specific cancer. By creating precise, personalized treatment plans that incorporate groundbreaking discoveries and collaborations with other world-renowned cancer researchers, the Cancer Institute’s experts work to design the best, most effective treatment plan just for you.

What is oral cavity cancer?

Oral cavity cancer, also known as mouth cancer, is a kind of Head and Neck Cancer in which malignant (cancerous) cells form in the lips or mouth. Oral cavity cancer is the most common type of Head and Neck Cancer, with more than 90 percent of oral cancers occurring in the squamous cells that line the mouth, tongue and lips.

Oral cavity cancer is very closely linked to pharyngeal (oral pharyngeal) cancer because of the closeness of location within the head and neck.

Medical illustration of head and neck cancer regions. 

The oral cavity includes the front two-thirds of the tongue as well as the gums, the lining inside the cheeks, the floor of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate on the roof of the mouth, and the retromolar trigone, which is the small area located behind the wisdom teeth.

What are the types of oral cavity cancer?

There are four main types of oral cavity cancer:

Tongue cancer occurs in the front two-thirds of the tongue. The most common type of tongue cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma (squamous cells are found in many of the body’s tissues, including the skin and respiratory tract.) As with many cancers, early detection and diagnosis often lead to more treatment options and better outcomes.

Lip cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells form on or in the lips. Most lip cancers start in squamous cells and may spread into deeper tissues. Patients with lip cancer may notice leukoplakias, which are abnormal patches of white tissue, or other types of sores on the lips that will not heal. Sometimes lip cancer does not present any symptoms at all, although it may be found during a routine dental exam.

Gum cancer is often mistaken for gingivitis because it begins in the upper or lower gums. Eventually lesions or tumors form, and dentists typically are the first to notice signs of gum cancer during routine dental examinations. Gum cancers are highly curable when detected and diagnosed early.

Jaw cancer typically originates in the jawbones (called primary jaw cancer), though cancers from other tissues can spread to the jaw (called secondary jaw cancer). Both primary and secondary jaw cancers can cause bone destruction because of tumor growth.

What are the risk factors for oral cavity cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease. Having risk factors, however, does not necessarily mean you will get cancer, so it’s important to know your own personal risk factors and discuss any concerns with your doctor.

Although the effects of oral cavity cancer can be significant, especially when not detected or diagnosed early, the disease is highly treatable – and even sometimes preventable – which is why it’s important to know your risk factors.

Oral cavity cancer is more than twice as common in men than in women. As people age, however, they may be more susceptible to oral cavity cancer.

About one-quarter of patients who develop oral cavity cancer are younger than age 55, but children are rarely diagnosed with the disease.

Some of the greatest risk factors for oral cancer include:

  • Tobacco use
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Exposure to natural sunlight or artificial light (such as by using tanning beds) over long periods of time

Other risk factors include:

Prevention

Oral cavity cancer is highly preventable, and by minimizing your risk factors, you may lower your risk of contracting the disease.

Preventing oral cavity cancers often involves changing lifestyle behaviors. This includes avoiding tobacco use in any form, limiting alcohol consumption and closely monitoring and limiting sun exposure – especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when ultraviolet (UV) rays are the strongest. Also, when in the sun, it’s important to use a lip balm with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher and reapply frequently.

It is also important to visit your primary care physician for regular check-ups and your dentist for regular and complete oral examinations, because not every patient exhibits signs or symptoms.

As with any type of cancer prevention, Miami Cancer Institute’s specialists recommend knowing and understanding your risk factors.

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