What is Oral Cancer

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What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer (mouth cancer) is the most common form of head and neck cancer. Oral cancer can affect the tongue, the lips and the floor of the mouth. It also can develop in the gums, the lining of the lips and cheeks, the roof of the mouth or the area behind the wisdom teeth. Left untreated, oral cancer can spread throughout your mouth and throat to other areas of your head and neck.

Dr. Maie St. John, MD, PhD, FACS
Maie St. John, MD, PhD

Some symptoms of Oral Cancer include:


  • Sores that are tender, may bleed easily and do not heal within 2-3 weeks
  • Rough spots, white spots, red spots or non-healing ulcers
  • Pain, tenderness or numbness that occur on your face, mouth or neck without cause
  • Pain with swallowing or difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Ear Pain
  • Persistent foul-smelling breath
  • Decreased appetite or un-intentional weight loss

What causes oral cancer?

Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that look like fish scales and line the oral cavity. Oral cancer starts in the squamous cells in your oral cavity. Normal squamous cells become cancerous when their DNA changes and cells begin growing and multiplying. Over time, these cancerous cells can spread to other areas inside of your mouth and then to other areas of your head and neck or other areas of your body.

Squamous cell cancer also affects your oropharynx — the last part of your tongue and roof of your mouth, your tonsils and the sides and back of your throat.

Who is affected by oral cancer?

Overall, the lifetime risk of developing oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer is about 1 in 60 for men and 1 in 141 for women.

Are there specific activities that can increase my risk of developing oral cancer?

Anything that increases your chances of getting cancer is called a risk factor. Many cases of oral cancers are linked to risk factors. Some patients will develop oral cancers without any known risk factors.

Approximately 75% of people who develop oral cancer have the following risk factors:

  • Smoke cigarettes, cigars or pipes.
  • Use smokeless tobacco products such as chewing tobacco, dip, snuff or water pipes (hookah or shush).
  • Regularly drink excessive amounts of alcohol.
  • Spend a lot of time in the sun without protecting their lips with sunblock.
  • Have human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Have a family history of oral cancer.
  • Gender: About two thirds of people diagnosed with oral cancer are men.
  • Age: These cancers are found most often in people over 45.
  • Prolonged sun exposure, which can lead to lip cancer
  • Long-term irritation caused by ill-fitting dentures
  • Poor nutrition, especially a diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Immunosuppressive drugs
  • Previous head and neck cancer
  • Radiation exposure
  • Lichen planus, a disease that affects the cells that line the mouth
  • Chewing betel nut, a stimulant common in Asia

It’s important to note that 25% of people who develop oral cancer don’t smoke or have other known risk factors.

Oral Cancer Prevention

Early diagnosis gives you the best chance of successful treatment. Here at UCLA, our team has built and developed new optical techniques (DOCI technique) to identify oral cancer early.

Oral cancers are among the most preventable cancers. Some ways to minimize your risk of developing oral cancer include:

  • Avoid tobacco in all forms.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Avoid prolonged use of dentures or mouth guards or Invisalign that scratch or do not fit well
  • Limit sun exposure; wear a lip balm with sunscreen and a hat with a brim.
  • Eat a well-rounded, healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables.