If you have several risk factors for oral melanoma, you may want to make sure you never miss a scheduled dental exam. This cancer can be hard for you to spot on your own.

Oral melanoma is a rare mouth cancer. Like all types of melanoma, oral melanoma can spread quickly and can be difficult to treat.

Additionally, oral melanoma doesn’t typically cause symptoms until later stages and can be hard to spot in the mouth, making early detection difficult. Treatment options are limited, but surgery to remove the tumor is typically the best treatment route.

Researchers don’t know the exact cause of oral melanoma. Unlike other skin melanomas, it’s not related to sun exposure. However, several risk factors are thought to be linked to an increased likelihood of oral melanoma. These include:

Additional risk factors include being a member of populations that are slightly more likely to develop oral melanoma, such as:

  • people between the ages of 65 and 79 years
  • people of African, Japanese, and South Asian ethnic backgrounds

How rare is oral melanoma?

Oral melanoma is a very rare cancer. The overall lifetime risk of developing any kind of melanoma is 3% for white people, 0.1% for Black people, and 0.5% for Hispanic people. Of all melanomas, 25% are melanomas of the head and neck. Mucosal melanoma, the type of melanoma that causes oral melanoma, makes up only 1% of all melanomas.

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The symptoms of oral melanoma can appear similar to the symptoms of other types of melanoma. Often, the cancer presents as a brown or black spot that might be raised or flat. Spots can have areas of other colors, including gray, red, and purple, or have areas with no color at all.

Spots can also be surrounded by smaller spots that are called satellite tumors and might have irregular borders and could be asymmetrical shapes.

However, the spots may be in areas that are hard to see during daily dental care. It’s common to overlook oral melanoma in the early stages. Regular dental visits can help detect early signs of oral melanoma that you may miss.

Some people may have no symptoms when they first receive a diagnosis. Others may begin to experience symptoms of tumor growth, such as swelling, redness, and dental pain, leading them to make a medical appointment and receive a diagnosis.

What does oral melanoma look like?

There are hundreds of images online of all types of melanoma, but it’s important to get oral melanoma (or any possible cancer) diagnosed by a doctor. The only way to know for certain that a spot or raised area is melanoma is through a biopsy.

If any new growth, dark area, or spot in or around your mouth doesn’t seem right to you, it’s always safest to make a medical appointment.

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Typically, the best treatment option for oral melanoma is surgery to remove the tumor and some tissue around it to make sure no cancer cells remain. Sometimes, additional treatments might also be used. This can include radiation therapy to kill cancer cells and reduce the chance of cancer spread.

Other common cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy, aren’t typical treatments for oral melanoma. Oral melanoma is rare, and there isn’t enough evidence to say if these treatments are effective. Doctors will suggest a treatment on a case-by-case basis.

As is true for all types of cancer, early detection and treatment improve the outlook for oral melanoma. Since oral melanoma is rare, it’s difficult to determine statistics such as survival rate. Some data indicates a 5-year survival rate range of between 4.5 and 29%.

It’s important to keep in mind that your individual outlook is affected by a number of factors. How early your cancer was diagnosed, your age, your overall health, your genetics, your response to treatment, and other other factors can play a large role in your outlook. Your doctor can help you understand your outlook.

Finding support

A cancer diagnosis can be frightening and overwhelming. However, resources are available to support you. If you need information, assistance, advocacy, or simply someone to talk with, you can reach out to:

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Oral melanoma is a rare type of melanoma that forms in the mouth.

The exact cause of oral melanoma is unknown. Early detection can improve treatment outcomes, but this cancer can be difficult to spot until it begins causing symptoms in later stages. Regular dental checkups can help catch early symptoms.

When treatment begins, surgical tumor removal is normally the best option.