For Mouth Cancer Action Month, information development nurse Teri writes about symptoms, causes and risk factors and diagnosis of mouth cancer.

The ease with which most of us can talk and eat is something many of us do not think twice about. However, being diagnosed with mouth cancer can change how easily we carry out these daily actions.

So, it’s important to be aware of what to look out for. And when it’s important to go to your GP or dentist to get possible symptoms of mouth cancer checked. Seeing your GP or dentist as soon as you notice any unusual changes increases the chance of being diagnosed early. When it’s diagnosed early, mouth cancer is easier to treat. There will also likely be fewer side effects to speech and diet.

Mouth cancer is also referred to as oral cancer. The part of the throat (pharynx) that is just behind the mouth, is called the oropharynx. Each year around 7,800 new cases of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer are diagnosed in the UK.

We have more information about symptoms and diagnosis of oropharyngeal cancer.

Mouth cancer can develop in any part of the mouth including the:

  • lips
  • tongue (the part that you can see which is the front two-thirds)
  • floor of the mouth (under the tongue)
  • inside lining of the cheeks and on the lips
  • roof of the mouth (the hard palate)
  • area behind the wisdom teeth
  • upper and lower gums.

Below is an illustration of the different parts of the mouth:

This is an illustration of the different parts of the mouth. It labels the upper lip, the hard palate, the soft palate, the inside of the cheek, the right and left tonsils, the tongue and the bottom lip

What are the causes and risk factors of mouth cancer?

The main causes of mouth cancer are:

  • smoking or chewing tobacco
  • drinking large amounts of alcohol.

Your risk of developing mouth cancer is higher if you do both.

Other things that may increase your risk of mouth cancer are:

  • chewing betel quid (paan), gutkha or pan masala (even if it does not have tobacco in it)
  • having medical problems that cause a weak immune system
  • eating an unhealthy diet, without enough fresh fruit and vegetables.

Exposure to sunlight over a prolonged period of time increases the risk of developing cancer on the outside of the lip.

What are symptoms of mouth cancer to look out for?

The most common symptom of mouth cancer is an ulcer or sore that does not heal in 3 weeks. This may be in the mouth or on the lip.

Other symptoms may include:

  • a white or red patch in the mouth that does not go away
  • a lump or thickening in the mouth or on the lip
  • difficulty or pain with chewing, swallowing or speaking
  • bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • bad breath (halitosis)
  • loose teeth or dentures that do not fit well anymore
  • a lump in the neck
  • losing a lot of weight over a short period of time.

If you have any symptoms that you’re worried about, go to your GP or dentist. They will examine your mouth using a small light and mirror. If they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer, or they aren't sure what the problem is, they will refer you to a specialist doctor.

You might need to have a test called a nasendoscope. This is done in an out-patient clinic. The doctor passes a thin, flexible tube into your nose, over the back of your tongue and down into the upper part of your throat. They will remove a small piece of tissue or some cells from the area that looks abnormal. This is called a biopsy.

If your only symptom is a lump in your neck, you may be referred to a hospital that has a neck lump clinic. This is a one-stop clinic where you can have all the tests needed to check for cancer in a neck lump. The clinic can often give you the results of your tests on the same day, but sometimes you may need to wait longer.

If a diagnosis is made, you may need other tests.

You can read more about mouth cancers in our online information about head and neck cancers. You may find our free booklet Understanding head and neck cancers helpful. You can also listen online or order the audiobook here

You can call our cancer information nurse specialists free on 0808 808 00 00, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm, with any questions you have about signs, symptoms, risks or diagnosis of mouth cancers. Or you can use our online Ask a nurse service.


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