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Mouth cancer

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What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer or cancer of the oral cavity, is often used to describe a number of cancers that start in the region of the mouth. These most commonly occur on the lips, tongue and floor of the mouth but can also start in the cheeks, gums, roof of the mouth, tonsils and salivary glands. Mouth cancers are generally classified as head and neck cancers. While the term mouth cancer is seldom used in scientific literature nor in Australia's official cancer data collection system, we use it here because it is used in basic information to promote cancer prevention and is easy to understand.

Mouth cancer symptoms

Symptoms of mouth cancer can include:

  • a lump in your neck
  • loose teeth
  • swelling or a sore on your lip that won't heel
  • difficult or painful swallowing
  • changes in speech
  • bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • white or red patches on the mouth, tongue or gums
  • unexplained weight loss.

Causes of mouth cancer

The main risk factors for most mouth cancers are tobacco and alcohol consumption. Other risk factors can include:

  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
  • family history of mouth cancers
  • poor oral hygiene and gum disease
  • exposure to the sun
  • chewing the seed of the areca palm tree (sometimes called areca or betel nut).

Diagnosis of mouth cancer

Signs of mouth cancer are often first detected by your dentist. Your doctor or dentist is likely to examine your mouth, throat, tongue, cheeks, ears and eyes. You may also be referred to a specialist for additional tests, such as:


In an endoscopy, a flexible tube (endoscope) is used to examine the nose, sinuses, larynx (voice box) and pharynx (throat).


A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue which is sent to a pathologist to determine if cancer cells are present.


X-rays of the head and neck can be used to see if cancer cells are present in the jaw, lungs or chest.


PET, CT and MRI scans to determine the location, stage and spread of cancer cells.

Treatment for mouth cancer

Treatment for mouth cancer depends on the type of cancer, where it is located and how far it has spread.


Tests such as CT and MRI scans help to determine how far the cancer has spread. Staging helps your doctor decide on the best treatment options for you.


A common treatment for mouth cancers is surgery to remove the tumour, particularly in early-stage cancer. The extent of surgery may depend on the size of the tumour and how far the cancer has spread. Surrounding tissue and lymph nodes may also be removed.


Radiotherapy can be used on its own to treat some small mouth cancers. Radiotherapy can also be used in combination with chemotherapy for more advanced cancers. Your doctor may also recommend radiotherapy after surgery.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or shrink tumours. It can be used on its own or with radiotherapy. You may have chemotherapy to shrink a tumour before surgery or if cancer has come back after other treatments.

Palliative care

Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life without trying to cure the cancer. It may be recommended by your doctor to alleviate the symptoms of cancer or the side-effects of treatment.


Screening for mouth cancer

There is currently no screening for mouth cancer available in Australia.

Prognosis of mouth cancer

While it is not possible to predict the exact course of a disease, your doctor may give you a prognosis, the likely outcome of your disease based on the type of cancer, your test results and the rate of tumour growth. Other factors include your age, medical history and overall health.

Preventing mouth cancer

Around 59% of mouth cancers in Australia are caused by smoking. Around 31% are caused by excess alcohol consumption. So quitting smoking and moderating alcohol consumption will significantly reduce your risk of developing mouth cancer, especially those inside the mouth. Cancers of the lip are commonly associated with UV exposure, so it is also important to protect yourself from the sun when the UV is high.


Understanding Head and Neck Cancers, Cancer Council Australia  © 2019. Last medical review of this booklet: September 2019


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This page was last updated on: Friday, October 11, 2019

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