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Mouth cancer refers to cancer that develops in any of the parts that make up the mouth. Mouth cancer can occur on the:
- Inside lining of the cheeks
- Roof of the mouth
- Floor of the mouth
Cancer that occurs on the inside of the mouth is sometimes called oral cancer or oral cavity cancer.
Mouth cancer is one of several types of cancer grouped in a category called head and neck cancers. Mouth cancer and other head and neck cancers are often treated similarly.
Mouth cancer occurs when cells on your lips or in your mouth develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. These mutations allow cancer cells to grow and divide when healthy cells would die. The accumulating mouth cancer cells can form a tumor. With time they may spread to other areas of the mouth and on to other areas of the head and neck or other parts of the body.
Mouth cancers most commonly begin in the flat, thin cells (squamous cells) that line your lips and the inside of your mouth. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
It’s not clear what causes the mutations in squamous cells that lead to mouth cancer. But doctors have identified factors that may increase the risk of mouth cancer.
Types of mouth cancer
Mouth cancer is a general term that applies to cancers that occur on the lips and throughout the mouth. More-specific terms for these types of cancer include:
- Cancer that affects in the inside portion of the cheeks (buccal mucosa cancer)
- Floor of mouth cancer
- Gum cancer
- Lip cancer
- Roof of mouth (hard palate) cancer
- Salivary gland cancer
- Tongue cancer
Signs and symptoms of mouth cancer may include:
- A sore that doesn’t heal
- A lump or thickening of the skin or lining of your mouth
- A white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
- Loose teeth
- Poorly fitting dentures
- Tongue pain
- Jaw pain or stiffness
- Difficult or painful chewing
- Difficult or painful swallowing
- Sore throat
- Feeling that something is caught in your throat
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor or dentist if you have any persistent signs and symptoms that bother you and last more than two weeks. Your doctor will likely investigate other more common causes for your signs and symptoms first, such as an infection.