Oral cavity cancer refers to any type of cancer that develops in your mouth, including your lips, tongue, cheeks, or gums. A common symptom is a mouth ulcer that doesn’t heal.

About 53,000 people in the United States receive a diagnosis of oral cavity cancer every year. This type of cancer is more frequent in people over 40 years old and is about 2 times more common in people assigned male at birth than in those assigned female.

Certain lifestyle choices may increase your risk of developing this type of cancer, especially tobacco use (smoking or chewing) and heavy alcohol consumption. Viral infections, like HPV, sun exposure, and poor nutrition may also increase your risk.

This article reviews the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of oral cavity cancer as well as the outlook for people with this condition.

Oral cavity cancer consists of any type of cancer that can develop in your mouth. It may also be referred to as oral cancer or mouth cancer.

Oral cavity cancer may involve your:

  • lips
  • gums
  • tongue
  • roof of the mouth
  • floor of the mouth under your tongue
  • inner part of the cheeks
  • tonsils
  • saliva glands

About 90% of oral cavity cancers are a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma. However, people may also develop other types cancer, including:

One of the most common symptoms of oral cavity cancer is the development of a mouth ulcer that doesn’t heal in 3 weeks.

Other symptoms of oral cavity cancer include:

  • a mass (swelling) in the mouth that doesn’t go away
  • difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • unexplained numbness or unusual feeling on the lip or tongue
  • loose teeth or teeth sockets that don’t heal after dental extractions or other medical treatment
  • changes in speech

What does oral cavity cancer look like?

In its early stages, oral cavity cancer may form white or red patches on the lining of the mouth. The gallery below provides images of what oral cancer looks like in various locations of the mouth.

The most common risk factors for oral cavity cancer are smoking or chewing tobacco and/or regularly consuming large amounts of alcohol.

Other risk factors for oral cavity cancer include:

Should you have regular screening for oral cavity cancers?

Currently, there are no population-based screening programs for oral cancer. However, most dentists perform mouth exams to check for cancer during routine dental visits.

If you’re at high risk for oral cavity cancer, a doctor can recommend how often you should be checked by for cancer.

You can also perform regular self-check exams. Learn more here.

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If your doctor suspects you have oral cavity cancer, they may perform a biopsy. During a biopsy, your doctor collects a sample of tissue that they believe may be affected by cancer. This sample is sent to a laboratory for testing.

Your doctor may also recommend a diagnostic procedure called a nasendoscopy. During this test, your doctor will pass a small flexible tube up your nose, reaching your throat. The tube has a tiny light and a camera that allows the doctor to spot the presence of cancer.

Another procedure that doctors may perform is called a panendoscopy. This is similar to a nasendoscopy, but it uses a bigger tube. During a panendoscopy, doctors can also remove small tumors that they find.

If the biopsy confirms you have oral cancer, you may also need to undergo additional tests to check the stage of your cancer and if cancer has spread to other areas. These tests may include:

Treatments for oral cavity cancer vary depending on the stage and location of the cancer. Your doctor can recommend the most appropriate treatment for your condition.

Treatment options include:

  • Surgery: Doctors use surgery to remove oral cavity tumors that are diagnosed in their early stages. They may also remove nearby lymph nodes during surgery.
  • Radiation therapy: Doctors use radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells. Doctors may use this treatment when they can’t surgically remove the tumors or to prevent cancer from spreading after surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: Doctors use anti-cancer medications to destroy cancer cells. Doctors may use these drugs when they can’t remove the cancer with surgery or to prevent its return following surgery.
  • Chemoradiation: This treatment consists of a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy medications target mechanisms that help cancer cells grow, spread, and survive.

Diagnosing cancer in its early stages can increase the survival rate of people with oral cavity cancer from 39.3% to 86.6%. The overall 5-year survival rate (all stages combined) of people with oral cavity cancer is 68%.

The following tables provide 5-year relative survival rates for people with oral cancer based on the location of the cancer. Data is from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database, maintained by the National Cancer Institute and collected between 2012 and 2018.

Floor of the mouth

SEER stage5-year relative survival rate
all stages combined53%


SEER stage5-year relative survival rate
all stages combined91%


SEER stage5-year relative survival rate
all stages combined69%

Oral cavity cancer develops in about 53,000 people in the United States every year. It can develop in any part of the mouth, including the lips and tongue. One of the most common symptoms is a sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal.

Some of the most common risk factors for oral cavity cancer include smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco, or regularly drinking large quantities of alcohol.

Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can significantly increase the survival rates of people with this type of cancer. If you notice sores in your mouth that don’t go away or other symptoms of oral cancer, don’t wait to see a dentist or doctor.