Mouth cancer (or oral cancer) is the growth of abnormal cell growth in the mouth tissues. While oral cancer most commonly involves tissues in the lips or tongue, it can also form in the tonsils or minor salivary glands.

The American Cancer Institute estimates there will be more than 36,540 new cases of oral cancer and more than 7,800 oral cancer-related deaths by the end of 2010. The cancer is twice as common in men as it is in women.

The majority of oral cancer cases (70 to 80 percent) are linked to tobacco use. Inhaling tobacco irritates the mucous membranes of the mouth, while smokeless tobacco causes the irritation from the direct contact. The second most common activity associated with oral cancer is heavy alcohol use.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer most often manifests as a lesion, lump, or ulcer in the mucous membranes. They may appear:

  • on the tongue, lip, inner cheek, or other area in the mouth
  • small
  • painless at first
  • develop a burning sensation
  • as a hard-edged crack in the tissue
  • pale colored
  • dark or discolored

Other symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • tongue inflammation or soreness
  • difficulty speaking
  • chewing problems
  • jaw stiffness
  • an abnormal taste in the mouth.

You should see a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. A doctor will do a physical examination of the mouth, but a biopsy (sample removed and reviewed in a laboratory) is needed for a diagnosis. After diagnosing cancer, your doctor will perform a number of tests in order to stage the cancer—in other words, determine how far along the cancer has progressed. Staging the cancer may require an endoscopy, c-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and PET scans, among others.

Treatment Options

Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Surgery is often used in oral cancer if the tumor is small and caught early enough. Radiation and chemotherapy are also used if the tumor is larger. Targeted drug therapy is another option.

As with most cancers, the outlook very much depends on how early the cancer is caught and when treatment begins. About 25 percent of people with oral cancer die from it because of delayed diagnosis and treatment.