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Oral Cancer

Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

Lip and oral cavity cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lips or mouth.

The oral cavity includes the following:

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Anatomy of the oral cavity; drawing shows the lip, hard palate, soft palate, retromolar trigone, front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva, buccal mucosa, and floor of mouth. Also shown are the teeth, uvula, and tonsil.
Anatomy of the oral cavity. The oral cavity includes the lips, hard palate (the bony front portion of the roof of the mouth), soft palate (the muscular back portion of the roof of the mouth), retromolar trigone (the area behind the wisdom teeth), front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva (gums), buccal mucosa (the inner lining of the lips and cheeks), and floor of the mouth under the tongue.

Most lip and oral cavity cancers start in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells that line the lips and oral cavity. These are called squamous cell carcinomasCancer cells may spread into deeper tissue as the cancer grows. Squamous cell carcinoma usually develops in areas of leukoplakia (white patches of cells that do not rub off).

Lip and oral cavity cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Tobacco and alcohol use can affect the risk of lip and oral cavity cancer.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for lip and oral cavity cancer include the following:

  • Using tobacco products.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • Being exposed to natural sunlight or artificial sunlight (such as from tanning beds) over long periods of time.
  • Being male.

Signs of lip and oral cavity cancer include a sore or lump on the lips or in the mouth.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by lip and oral cavity cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal.
  • A lump or thickening on the lips or gums or in the mouth.
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth.
  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the lip or mouth.
  • Change in voice.
  • Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well.
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw.
  • Swelling of jaw.
  • Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat.

Lip and oral cavity cancer may not have any symptoms and is sometimes found during a regular dental exam.

Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ(r)) Cancer Information Summaries (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq). Date last modified: July 2, 2014

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Last Reviewed: Mar 23, 2015