Oral cancer, also known as oral cavity cancer, is cancer located in your mouth. Another type of oral cancer is oropharyngeal cancer, which starts in the part of your throat just behind the mouth.
Oral cancer includes cancer in the lips, inside lining of the lips, cheeks, teeth, gums, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the floor of the mouth and the bony roof of the mouth. The area behind your wisdom teeth can be included in the oral cavity, but is often considered part of the oropharynx. Oropharyngeal (throat) cancer includes cancer in areas such as the base of the tongue, the back part of the roof of the mouth, tonsils and the side and back wall of the throat.
Tumors that are located in the mouth or throat are usually split into two categories: non-cancerous growths (benign) that have not spread throughout the body, and cancerous tumors that may grow or spread throughout the body.
Benign tumors should be watched, but are not likely life-threatening. With these types of tumors, surgery is a good option since they have not yet spread and are unlikely to come back.
Harmless growths that may later develop into cancerous tumors are called leukoplakia and erythoplakia, both of which are terms used to describe abnormal tissue in the mouth or throat. These areas are commonly found by your dentist as red or white areas of your mouth or throat. For these types of growths, a biopsy will need to be done to find out whether the tumor is cancerous.
There are various types of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, such as squamous cell carcinomas, minor salivary gland carcinomas and lymphomas. More than 90 percent of oral and oropharynx cancers are the squamous cell type, which means the cancer forms in flat, scale-like cells that line the mouth and throat.
Minor salivary gland carcinomas can develop in the glands in the lining of the mouth and throat. Symptoms of this type of oral cancer include a lump or swelling in the affected area, pain in the oral area, difference in the size or shape of either side or your face or neck, numbness in part of your face, weakness in the muscles on one side of your face, among others.
Lymphoma-type oral cancers start in the tonsils and base of the tongue, both of which are where lymphoid tissue lives. Hodgkin disease and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are both types of lymphomas.
Oral and oropharyngeal cancer are not common – the American Cancer Society estimates approximately 54,000 people will develop these types of cancer in 2022.
If you have concerns about your oral health, speak with your dentist or healthcare team to be proactive in your health.
Matthew Ochsner, MD, specializes in Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery at Memorial Health. He provides comprehensive surgical care for patients with cancerous and non-cancerous tumors of the head and neck, including microvascular reconstruction. Dr. Ochsner sees patients at Memorial Health University Physicians - Surgical Care. Schedule an appointment at (912) 350-8712.