What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer (also known as oral cancer) is one of the most common types of head and neck cancer. It can start in any part of the mouth.

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Signs and symptoms of mouth cancer

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

If you are worried about mouth cancer, we have more information about the signs and symptoms.

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
  • long-term ultraviolet light exposure (from sunlight, sunbeds or sunlamps), which increases the risk of lip cancer.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get mouth cancer. Also, having no risk factors does not mean you will not develop mouth cancer.

Tests and diagnosis for mouth cancer

You usually start by seeing your GP or dentist. They will examine your mouth closely. They will refer you to a specialist doctor if:

  • they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer
  • they are not sure what the problem is.

The specialist doctor will ask about your symptoms and general health. They will check your mouth using a small mirror and light.

If your only symptom is a lump in your neck, you may be referred to a hospital that has a neck lump clinic.

You may have some of the following tests:

  • Nasendoscopy

    A nasendoscopy is used to look at the back of your mouth, nose, pharynx and larynx.

  • Biopsy

    The doctor collects samples (biopsies) of cells or tissue from the area that looks abnormal. A doctor who specialises in analysing cells (called a pathologist) looks at the sample under a microscope for cancer cells. Your doctor may take a biopsy while they are examining you with the nasendoscope. Or they might arrange for you to have a general anaesthetic to take the biopsy.

  • Ultrasound scan of the neck

    An ultrasound scan of the neck uses soundwaves to produce a picture of your neck and lymph nodes on a computer screen.

  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA) of the lymph nodes

    An FNA is a simple test that you can have as an outpatient. You may have this test if the lymph nodes in your neck do not feel or look normal on a scan. It is done to see whether there are any cancer cells in the lymph nodes.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.

Further tests for mouth cancer

These tests may be used to help diagnose mouth cancer and to check whether it has spread.

  • CT scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of your body.

  • MRI scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

Staging and grading of mouth cancer

The results of your tests helps your doctors find out more about the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.

A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.

Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.

We have general information about staging and grading of head and neck cancers. Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you more information.

Treatment for mouth cancer

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.

Treatment for mouth cancer may include:

  • Surgery

    Surgery may be used to remove the cancer or lymph nodes in the neck. Surgery is often the only treatment needed to remove an early-stage mouth cancer.

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. It can be used on its own, but is often given in combination with chemotherapy. This is called chemoradiation

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The chemotherapy drugs most often used to treat mouth cancer are cisplatin and fluorouracil (5FU).

  • Chemoradiation

    Chemoradiation is when you have chemotherapy and radiotherapy together. Chemotherapy can make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy treatment.

  • Targeted therapies

    Targeted therapy drugs work by targeting something in or around the cancer cell that is helping it grow and survive. Cetuximab is the most commonly used targeted therapy to treat mouth cancer.

We have more information about

You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.

After mouth cancer treatment

You have regular follow-up appointments after treatment. You may also have regular follow-up appointments with a speech and language therapist (SLT), dietitian, restorative dentist and dental hygienist.

If you have any problems or notice new symptoms between appointments, let your doctor know as soon as possible.

Sex life and fertility

Head and neck cancer and its treatment can sometimes affect your sex life. Your doctor or nurse can explain what to expect. There are often things that can help if you have problems.

Some cancer treatments can also affect whether you can get pregnant or make someone pregnant.

If you are worried about this, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment.

Late effects

Some side effects that develop during treatment may take a long time to improve, or may sometimes become permanent. These are called long-term effects.

Other effects can develop months or even years after treatment has finished. These are known as late effects. We have more information about long-term and late effects of head and neck cancer treatment.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes to the way you live such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.

It can be difficult to eat well after treatment for head and neck cancer, but your dietitian can help you.

Your feelings after mouth cancer treatment

For some people, it takes several months to recover from treatment. It can be hard to cope if treatment has changed your appearance, voice or how you eat and drink. It is common to feel overwhelmed by different feelings.

There are national support groups that you may find helpful:

  • The Mouth Cancer Foundation

    The Mouth Cancer Foundation gives information and support to people affected by head and neck cancers.

  • Changing Faces

    Changing Faces offers advice and information to anyone who is affected by a change in their appearance.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Reviewed: 31 January 2018
Reviewed: 31/01/2018
Next review: 31 July 2021
Next review: 31/07/2021

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.