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Oral cavity (mouth) cancer is among the most common head and neck malignancies. More than 90% of cancers that occur in this area develop from the thin, flat squamous cells that line structures in the mouth, so they are sometimes referred to as "squamous cell carcinomas." 

What is oral cancer? 

Oral cavity cancer describes cancer that originates in the mouth, including areas such as the: 

  • Gums
  • Lips
  • Inside lining of the lips and cheeks (buccal mucosa)
  • Teeth
  • Tongue
  • Tonsils
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Hard palate 
  • Salivary glands 

Oral Cavity Cancer Causes & Risk Factors

Cancer occurs as a result of changes to genes that regulate cell division. Research shows these changes can be triggered by genetic conditions, environmental factors, harmful behaviors such as smoking or a combination of all three, although the exact cause of cancer is unclear in many cases.

Cancers that form in the oral cavity have been strongly linked to the use of tobacco products. Pipe and cigarette smoking poses a greater risk for cancers of the lips, while oral tobacco products like chewing tobacco have been linked with oral cancers of the gums, cheeks and the inner surface of the lips. Similarly, neck cancers are closely associated with tobacco and alcohol use, especially when the two products are combined for a long period of time.

In addition to tobacco and alcohol use, other risk factors for oral cancers include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Being 55 or older (the average age at diagnosis is 63) 
  • Poor nutrition
  • Certain genetic syndromes, including Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita
  • A family history of oral cancer  

Receiving regular oral cancer exams from a dental or cancer specialist is highly recommended to identify oral cavity tumors and abnormalities in an early stage when they are easier to treat. Adults between the ages of 20 and 40 should be screened for oral cavity cancer every three years, while people older than 40 should receive an exam on an annual basis. If you use tobacco products, consider quitting these activities and attending more frequent mouth cancer screenings and dental visits. 

Is oral cancer rare? 

As mentioned above, oral cancers of the tongue, gums and other areas of the mouth are most common in people who use tobacco products and frequently drink alcohol, although cases related to HPV infection are on the rise. The majority of oral cancers develop on the tongue, tonsils, gums and floor of the mouth. Overall, oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are uncommon, with a lifetime risk of diagnosis at about 1 in 60 for men and 1 in 140 for women. 

What are the symptoms of oral cavity cancer?

The signs of oral cancer can vary based on the cancer’s stage and specific location within the mouth. Usually, symptoms involve one or more of the following:  

  • A red, pink, gray or white patch on the inside of the mouth, which can be flat or slightly raised and may bleed when scraped
  • A sore on the lip or inside of the mouth that doesn’t heal
  • An unusual lump or growth
  • Areas of the lip, gums or mouth that are rough or crusty  
  • Loosened teeth
  • Unexplained pain or numbness around the mouth, neck or face
  • Frequent bleeding in the mouth  
  • Earaches
  • Chronic bad breath  
  • Painful or difficult swallowing  

Doctor explaining oral cancer treatment options

Oral cavity cancer treatment options

Most oral cancer treatment plans include a combination of:

  • Surgery. Surgical treatment is commonly used to remove oral cavity tumors and small margins of healthy tissue. Surgery may also be performed to reconstruct the mouth following clinical treatment or remove oral cancers that have traveled to other areas of the body, such as the neck.
  • Radiation therapy. Harnessing the cancer-fighting abilities of precisely targeted X-rays and protons, radiation therapy is often used to treat oral cancer following surgery or as a standalone treatment.
  • Chemotherapy. Administered alone or with other treatments, chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to attack cancer cells throughout the body.
  • Targeted drug therapy. Targeted drugs such as Cetuximab (Erbitux) work by impeding certain actions that fuel oral cancer growth.

Moffitt Receives a $5 Million Donation from Phebe Morgan to Support Oral Cancer Research

Moffitt's approach to oral cavity cancer

At Moffitt Cancer Center’s Head and Neck Cancer Program, our clinical oncology team brings together experts from multiple specialties to provide a full complement of individualized care to patients with all types of mouth cancers. We offer advanced diagnostic and treatment programs for oral cavity cancers, and spearhead a robust clinical trial program that gives eligible patients access to breakthrough treatment options that are not yet available anywhere else. We’re the only center based in Florida to have been designated a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute, meaning you can trust that the treatment you receive at Moffitt is among the best offered anywhere in the world.

If you’d like to schedule an appointment to discuss your symptoms with a Moffitt physician, or obtain a second opinion regarding oral cavity cancer treatment, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. As Florida’s top cancer hospital, Moffitt is improving the cancer treatment model by providing patients with rapid access to cancer specialists.


Support the Future of Head and Neck Oncology Research and Treatment

When you support Moffitt Cancer Center, you help make breakthrough head and neck research and innovative treatments possible. Give now to support the Head and Neck Oncology Program. For more information, call toll-free 1-800-456-3434, ext. 1403.

Oral Cavity (Mouth) Cancer