Oral Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, and More

In 2021, experts say 54,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer. This is a medical condition that involves cancerous tissues in the mouth and throat. Oral cancer can happen in the gums, tongue, tonsils, and other areas of the mouth.

Luckily, there are a number of treatment options for this condition, and there are also several prevention tips to consider.

Keep reading to learn more about oral cancer, including symptoms, causes, treatment options, and more.


While there are various symptoms of oral cancer, they can vary greatly from one person to the next. Mouth pain or mouth sores that don’t seem to go away are a few of the leading symptoms.

Check out some other common symptoms of oral cancer:

  • White or red patches in mouth
  • Problems with chewing or swallowing
  • A lump in your cheek
  • Neck swelling
  • A feeling like something’s caught in your throat
  • Difficulty moving your tongue or jaw
  • A Change in your bite
  • Frequent bad breath
  • Weight loss

While many of these are noticeable, some symptoms of oral cancer can be hard to detect. This is why it’s highly recommended to visit your dentist at least twice a year. During your appointment, your dentist will look for any signs of concern and ask you questions about your oral health.


Unfortunately, the research community has still yet to determine the exact causes of oral cancer. However, scientists think the cancer begins after the genetic code that controls cell growth and death becomes damaged or mutated. Further studies are needed to know the exact causes of oral cancer.

However, there are some factors that put you at a higher risk of developing this condition. These risk factors include:

  • Age: Anyone over the age of 45 is more likely to experience oral cancer.
  • Excessive alcohol use: Those who consume heavy amounts of alcohol can expect to be at a higher risk.
  • Radiation exposure: Those who have been exposed to high levels or frequent radiation are more likely to have oral cancer.
  • Tobacco users: Consuming tobacco is definitely a leading risk factor of developing oral cancer. Cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and smokeless tobacco can all lead to developing the condition.
  • Sun exposure: Too much sun on your lips can lead to oral cancer. SPF lip balm can be applied to reduce the risk.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): The back of the throat, in the tonsils, and at the base of the tongue is where HPV oral cancers are usually located.
  • Another cancer: If you already have a type of cancer in the neck or head, you’re at a higher risk of developing oral cancer.

If you’re at risk of developing this condition, seeing your dentist for routine checkups is vital. If you avoid these appointments, that will increase the risk even further.

Diagnosis & Treatment

There are a few different ways your doctor will check for oral cancer. These tests and procedures include:

  • Physical exam: The dentist will check your lips,  mouth, tongue, and throat to look for any signs of concern, such as sores or white patches.
  • Biopsy: If a problematic area is found, a tiny piece of tissue will be removed for sampling. The tissue is analyzed in a laboratory to look for cancer, including any precancerous signs.

When it comes to treatment options for oral cancer, it depends on the severity of the condition.

Here are the common treatment options for each stage of oral cancer:

Stage 0

In this stage, the cancer is only on the surface and hasn’t made its way further into the tissue. The typical treatment in this stage is surgery, such as Mohs surgery, thin resection, or surgical stripping. These treatments work to remove the top layers of cancerous tissue.

Stages I and II

Radiation therapy and surgery are two common treatments at these stages of oral cancer. Some patients will also undergo chemotherapy and radiation at the same time, which can be very beneficial. Whatever option you choose depends on the expected side effects and discussion with your health provider.

Stages III and IVA

Oral cancers at this stage typically occur in these locations:

  • Bottom of mouth
  • Front of tongue
  • Inside of cheek
  • On the gums
  • On the hard palate

The cancers found in these areas are usually bigger cancers, such as ones that travel to surrounding tissues or the lymph nodes in your neck. Surgery followed by radiation is the common treatment plan for these stages of oral cancer.

Stages IVB and IVC

Cancers in these stages have already traveled to nearby tissues, structures, and possibly the lymph nodes. For stage IVC cancers, these can spread to other areas of the body, including the lungs.

Some patients with IVB cancers may be too weak for surgery, or the cancer may be impossible to remove. In this case, radiation may be the only treatment option. Chemoradiation and chemotherapy are other treatments to consider.

For cancers in stage IVC, chemo, cetuximab, or a combination of both may be used for treatment. Immunotherapy is another common option.

Recurrent oral cancer

On some occasions, oral cancer can disappear and come back. This is called recurrent cancer. The best treatment options for this condition depend on the location of the cancer, the size, what treatments have already been performed, and the health status of the patient.

Schedule Your Checkup at Smile Hilliard Today

While oral cancer can happen to anyone, there are some simple ways to reduce the risk of developing the disease. For one, it’s best to visit the dentist at least twice a year for routine checkups.

If you live in Hilliard, Ohio or anywhere in the surrounding area, look no further than Smile Hilliard. Rachel M. Sanyk, DDS and our skilled team of dental experts are here for your dental care needs. We can easily check for any signs of oral cancer, and we’ll also discuss risk factors, prevention tips, and more!

Whether you’re looking for a simple checkup or a full-mouth restoration, our professional team at Smile Hilliard is always here for you! Call us today to make an appointment.

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At our office in Hilliard, Ohio, Dr. Rachel Sanyk and the Smile Hilliard team are fully committed to providing our patients with the very best in general dentistry with comprehensive preventive, restorative, cosmetic, and therapeutic services.

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