Oral cancers are the 6th most common cancers worldwide, and account for about 3 percent of all cancers.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), about 52,000 people in the U.S. were estimated to be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2012. Oral cancer is twice as common in men and the incidence generally increases with age. Cancers in the brain, eye, esophagus, thyroid gland, scalp, skin, muscles, and bones are not head and neck cancers.

Oral cancers usually begin in the flat cells (squamous) that cover the surface of the mouth, tongue, and lips. Oncologists name them for the area in which they begin and collectively refer to them as cancers of the head and neck. Although oral cancer can begin in the salivary glands, it's not very common.

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

The good news is that oral cancers are highly preventable. In fact, tobacco is the single biggest risk factor and is responsible for most oral cancer deaths. Alcohol is also a significant risk factor. Oncologists attribute roughly 75 to 90 percent of head and neck cancers to tobacco and alcohol.

Other risk factors include excessive sun exposure, poor diet, personal history of cancer, and HPV (human pappillomavirus) infection—a sexually transmitted disease. Health experts believe the recent increase in throat, tonsil, and tongue cancers in younger men are due to HPV infections.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

  • White, red, or red and white patches in the mouth
  • Lump in the neck
  • Mouth sores that do not heal
  • Problems or pain with swallowing
  • Bringing up blood
  • Persistent earache
  • Numbness of the lower lip and chin

As with most cancers, early detection improves the prognosis. When you have a regular dental exam, your dentist routinely checks for signs of oral cancer. She may spot suspicious looking areas or growths before you realize they're present. You will need a biopsy (tissue sample) to definitively diagnose oral cancer.


Oncologists treat oral cancers with same standard treatments they use for other cancers. When possible, a surgeon will remove the tumor. Patients may also undergo chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or targeted therapies. Cetuximab, for example, a targeted therapy, binds to oral cancer cells, interfering with cell growth and the tumor's ability to spread. Unfortunately, treatment for oral cancer can permanently affect a patient's ability to chew, swallow, or talk.

See your physician if you notice any oral cancer symptoms. It's likely that cancer is not the culprit, but a professional evaluation will let you know for sure.




National Cancer Institute. "What You Need To Know About Oral Cancer." Web. 23 December 2009.

Mercola, Joseph, MD. "Is the Rise in Male Oral Cancer Related to HPV?" Web. 8 May 2008.

National Cancer Institute. "Head and Neck Cancers." Web. 17 April 2012.

American Academy of Otolaryngology. "Head and Neck Cancer." Web. December 2012.

American Dental Association. "Oral Health Topics." Web.