Oral (Mouth) Cancer

About the Condition

Oral cancer, which is also known as mouth cancer, occurs when the genetic material of cells in the mouth become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. The abnormal cells then replicate, causing cancer. If undetected, the cancer can spread beyond the mouth and move to other parts of the body.

The precise causes of oral cancer are unknown, but it is thought that risk factors include:

  • smoking or using products that contain tobacco
  • drinking alcohol – smokers who are also heavy drinkers have a much higher risk compared to the population at large
  • infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV)

Mouth cancer is an uncommon type of cancer, accounting for one in 50 of all cancer cases.

In the UK, just over 6,767 new cases of mouth cancer were diagnosed in 2011*. Most cases of mouth cancer first develop in older adults who are between 50-74 years of age*. Mouth cancer can occur in younger adults, but it’s thought that HPV infection may be responsible for the majority of cases that occur in younger people. Mouth cancer is more common in men than in women.


Mouth cancer can develop on most parts of the mouth, including the lips, gums and occasionally, the throat. The most common symptoms of mouth cancer include:

  • red or white patches in the mouth or throat
  • a lump
  • ulcers

Other symptoms may include:

  • persistent pain in the mouth
  • pain or difficulty when swallowing (dysphagia)
  • changes in your voice, or speech problems
  • swollen lymph nodes (glands) in your neck
  • unexplained weight loss
  • bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  • a tooth, or teeth, that becomes loose for no obvious reason
  • difficulty moving your jaw


Mouth cancer tends not to cause any noticeable symptoms during the initial stages of the disease. This is why it is important to have regular dental check-ups, particularly if you are a smoker, a heavy drinker or a betel chewer, because a dentist may often be able to detect the condition during an examination. You should have a dental check-up at least every year. However, more frequent check-ups may be recommended if you have a history of tooth decay or gum disease.

Many of the symptoms listed above can be caused by less serious conditions, such as minor infections, but it’s strongly recommended that you visit your GP if any of the symptoms listed above have lasted for more than three weeks. It’s especially important to seek medical advice if you’re a heavy drinker or smoker.

If any of these symptoms apply to you, or if you have any concerns about similar symptoms, it is essential that you see your doctor at once, as your chances of recovery are much higher if your cancer is diagnosed early.


If you’re referred to CCL for diagnosis, your consultant or oncologist will advise you on which tests are relevant to your individual symptoms. As there are usually few symptoms during the early stages of mouth cancer, it is vital that when symptoms appear diagnosis is swift and accurate. Tests include:

  • a physical examination of the area
  • a Panendoscopy, which involves a more detailed examination of your nose and throat carried out under general anaesthetic using a series of small, rigid telescopes connected together
  • a Computerised Tomography (CT) scan, which shows a 3D image of the area being looked at
  • a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, which is a procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body
  • a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan, which uses a very small amount of an injected radioactive drug to show where cells are active in the body
  • an X-ray, which is when low level radiation is used to create an image of the body
  • a biopsy, where cell samples are taken for examination for signs of cancer, usually during an endoscopy
  • a Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) where a of tissue is taken from a lump, using a very thin needle


At CCL, patients with oral cancer are treated by a team of different specialists, called a Multi-Disciplinary Team, or MDT. This team works together to create a treatment plan to suit the individual needs of the patient. There are three main treatment options for mouth cancer. They are:

  • Surgery, where the cancerous cells are surgically removed and, in some cases, some of the surrounding tissue
  • Radiotherapy, which is where high-energy rays are used to destroy the cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy, which involves the use of chemical agents which are toxic to cancer cells, destroying them and preventing them from spreading to different areas. This can be given by injection or in tablet form
  • Biotherapy, which is the use of newer and more targeted therapies to assist the body in fighting the disease
  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT), which is a technique for treating skin cancers and sun-damaged skin, where a special light activates a cream which has been applied to the affected area of skin, killing the abnormal cells in the skin


Support Services

Cancer doesn’t just leave a physical impact on an individual, it can have a huge emotional effect as well. Cancer and its treatment can be overwhelming, causing a wide variety of emotions, and it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong response. Reactions vary hugely from person to person, and most people find that it becomes easier to cope when they’re given additional support, so that’s what we do.

At CCL we provide support that caters to both the physical and emotional needs of the patient, before, during and after treatment. We offer a wide range of services for patients, as well as their loved ones, designed to make a very difficult time as easy as possible, and to give our patients the best treatment and support possible.



Cancer Centre London

Parkside Hospital