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Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, is where a tumour develops in the lining of the mouth. It may be on the surface of the tongue, the insides of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth (palate), or the lips or gums.
Tumours can also develop in the glands that produce saliva, the tonsils at the back of the mouth, and the part of the throat connecting your mouth to your windpipe (pharynx). However, these are less common.
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Symptoms of mouth cancer include:
See your GP or dentist if these symptoms don't heal within three weeks, particularly if you drink or smoke heavily.
Mouth cancer is categorised by the type of cell the cancer (carcinoma) starts in.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of mouth cancer, accounting for 9 out of 10 cases.
Squamous cells are found in many places around the body, including the inside of the mouth and the skin.
Less common types of mouth cancer include:
Things that increase your risk of developing mouth cancer include:
Read more about the causes of mouth cancer.
Mouth cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the world, but it's much less common in the UK.
Around 6,800 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year in the UK, which is about 2% of all cancers diagnosed.
Most cases of mouth cancer occur in older adults aged 50 to 74. Only one in eight (12.5%) cases affect people younger than 50.
Mouth cancer can occur in younger adults. HPV infection is thought to be associated with the majority of cases that occur in younger people.
Cancer of the mouth is also more common in men than in women. This may be because, on average, men tend to drink more alcohol than women.
There are three main treatment options for mouth cancer:
These treatments are often used in combination. For example, surgery may be followed by a course of radiotherapy to help prevent the cancer returning.
As well as trying to cure the cancer, treatment will focus on important functions of the mouth, such as breathing, speaking and eating. Maintaining the appearance of your mouth will also be given high priority.
Read more about treating mouth cancer.
Mouth cancer and its treatment can cause a number of complications. It can affect the appearance of your mouth and make speaking and swallowing difficult (dysphagia).
Dysphagia can be a potentially serious problem. If small pieces of food enter your airways and become lodged in your lungs, it could trigger a chest infection, known as aspiration pneumonia.
Read more about the complications of mouth cancer.
The three most effective ways of preventing mouth cancer developing, or preventing it coming back after successful treatment, are:
The NHS recommends you drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. If you drink as much as 14 units a week, it's best to spread it evenly over three or more days.
It's also important that you have regular dental check-ups – dentists can often spot the early stages of mouth cancer.
The outlook for mouth cancer can vary depending on which part of the mouth is affected and whether it's spread from the mouth into surrounding tissue. The outlook is better for mouth cancer that affects the lip, tongue or oral cavity.
If mouth cancer is diagnosed early, a complete cure is often possible in up to 90% of cases using surgery alone.
In cases where the cancer is larger, there's still quite a good chance of a cure, but surgery should be followed by radiotherapy or a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy to give the best chance.
Advances in surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy have resulted in much improved cure rates.
Overall, around 60% of people with mouth cancer will live at least five years after their diagnosis, and many will live much longer without the cancer returning.