Signs, Symptoms and Treatment Options of Mouth Cancer

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, will affect about 53,000 people in the United States this year. While most people diagnosed with this type of cancer are over 60-years-old, it can develop in young people too. It’s also twice as common in men as in women. The good news is that mouth cancer has a survival rate of about 70 to 90-percent but only if it’s detected early.

If cancer progresses and has spread to other parts of the body the survival rate drops to 38-percent. This is why learning the warning signs and risk factors is so important. Follow along as we uncover the signs, symptoms, and treatment options of mouth cancer, and make sure you speak to your doctor if you think you’re at risk.

What is Mouth Cancer

Mouth cancer is cancer that develops in any parts of the oral cavity. Mouth cancer can occur on the tongue, gums, roof of the mouth, floor of the mouth (below the tongue), the inner lining of the cheeks, and on the lips.

When cancer develops inside the mouth, it’s often referred to as oral cancer. Furthermore, while this might be less common, tumors can also develop on the tonsils at the back of your mouth, the part of your throat that connects your mouth to the windpipe, and in the glands that produce saliva.

Warning Signs and Symptoms of Mouth Cancer

There are several warning signs and symptoms of mouth cancer that you should be on the lookout for. Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Mouth and/or ear pain
  • Unexplained loose teeth
  • A white or red patch on the inside of your mouth
  • Mouth ulcers that are painful and don’t heal
  • Lumps in the mouth or on the neck that don’t go away
  • Difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • Changes in speech.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and they do not clear up on their own after a few weeks make sure you speak with your dentist or doctor.

Causes of Mouth Cancer

Mayo Clinic explains, “Mouth cancers form when cells on the lips or in the mouth develop changes (mutations) in their DNA.” When mutation happens, this tells the cells to continue to grow and divide whereas if they were healthy, the cells would be told to expire. As the abnormal cancer cells accumulate, they can form a tumor and over time they can spread inside the mouth as well as on other areas of the neck and head.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any concrete evidence that explains what causes the mutations that lead to mouth cancer. That said, doctors have identified several factors that can increase your risk of developing mouth cancer. Let’s explore that next.

Risk Factors

There are several factors that can put you at a greater risk of developing mouth cancer. These include excessive alcohol consumption, excessive sun exposure to your lips, a weakened immune system, and a sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV).

You’ll also be at risk if you use tobacco of any kind. This includes cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, pipes, and more. If you want to reduce your risk of developing mouth cancer, then you’ll want to stay away from these risk factors.

Diagnosing Mouth Cancer

If your doctor or dentist suspects that you might have mouth cancer there are a couple of tests and procedures they will use to diagnose cancer. First, they’ll perform a physical exam. Your doctor or dentist will examine your mouth and will be on the lookout for any abnormalities.

If there is cause for concern, your doctor may remove a sample to send it for laboratory testing called a biopsy. To collect the sample your doctor may use a needle to remove a sample or they might cut a sample from your mouth. Once the sample is sent away it can be tested for cancerous cells.

Treatment Options

If it is confirmed that you do have mouth cancer there are several treatment options available. The decided treatment will depend on the location and stage of cancer you have as well as your overall health.

Some patients require just one type of treatment while others may need a combination of treatments. Follow along as we explore the different types of treatment available and make sure you discuss your options with your doctor.


One of the treatment options for mouth cancer is surgery. For smaller cancers, your surgeon may perform surgery to remove the tumor as well as a bit of the healthy tissue around it to ensure all of the cancer cells have been removed. That said, large tumors may require a more invasive surgery such as removing a portion of your tongue.

Further, your surgeon may need to remove cancer that has spread to your neck. If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes they may need to remove the lymph nodes as well as connected tissue in your neck.

Finally, your surgeon may need to perform surgery to reconstruct your mouth after removing your cancer. Keep in mind surgery to remove this type of cancer does often affect your ability to speak, eat, swallow, and it may affect your appearance as well.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a type of treatment that uses beams of intense energy to ward off cancer cells. Mayo Clinic explains, “Radiation therapy damages cells by destroying the genetic material that controls how cells grow and divide.”

This type of treatment is often used after surgery, however, it may also be used on its own, especially if you have early-stage mouth cancer. Radiation therapy may also be combined with chemotherapy to increase the effectiveness of the treatment. That said, combining the two treatments may increase the side effects you encounter. Some side effects of radiation therapy include tooth decay, damage to your jawbone, and dry mouth.


Chemotherapy is an anti-cancer drug that is used to treat cancer. The American Cancer Society explains, ” For oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, the drugs are given into a vein or taken by mouth, which allows them to enter the bloodstream and reach cancer that has spread throughout the body.”

Chemo is often combined with other cancer treatments such as radiation therapy and or surgery. Chemo drugs may even increase the effectiveness of radiation therapy which is why they are often combined. The side effects you experience with this treatment will vary depending on the drugs you receive. That said, some common side effects include, hair loss, nausea, and vomiting. You can ask your doctor which side effects you should expect.

Targeted Drug Therapy

Another form of treatment for mouth cancer is targeted drug therapy. This treatment uses drugs to target specific genes and proteins that are in charge of the growth and survival of cancer cells.

Targeted drug therapy can be used alone or doctors may use it along with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. One of the cancer drugs used for mouth cancer is Cetuximab, also known as Erbitux. This drug quickly destroys cancer cells and is administered as a drip into your bloodstream. Make sure you speak to your doctor to find out if targeted drug therapy is a good treatment option for you.


Finally, another way to treat mouth cancer is through immunotherapy. The American Cancer Society explains, “Immunotherapy is treatment that uses certain parts of a person’s immune system to fight diseases such as cancer.” This type of treatment is often reserved for advanced mouth cancer patients that are not responding to other types of treatment.

Immunotherapy can be used in a couple of ways. First, it can stimulate or boost your immune system so that it can work harder to attack unhealthy cancer cells. The other way is by creating substances in a lab that act as immune system components and using them to help enhance how your immune system works to attack unhealthy cells.

Preventing Mouth Cancer

While there is no proven way to prevent mouth cancer, there are lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of developing it. If you use tobacco, it’s time to quit, and if you don’t use it make sure you don’t start.

Next, you may want to stop drinking alcohol entirely, or at the very least drink it in moderation. You should also limit sun exposure to your lips or at the very least wear sun protection on your lips when you’re outside. Finally, make sure you see your dentist regularly so they can inspect your mouth at every visit.

Clarissa Vanner

Clarissa Vanner

Clarissa is the Junior Managing Editor of ActiveBeat. She aspires to live a healthy lifestyle by staying active and eating foods that nourish her body, but she isn't afraid to indulge in a little chocolate here and there! Clarissa loves cooking, being outdoors, and spending time with her dog. In her free time, you'll find her relaxing in her hammock or curled up on the couch reading a book.