Oral cancer

Squamous cell carcinoma
March 26, 2019
Skin cancer
March 26, 2019

Oral cancer

Oral cancer, also known as mouth cancer , is cancer of the lining of the lips, mouth, or upper throat. In the mouth, it most commonly starts as a painless white patch, that thickens, develops red patches, an ulcer, and continues to grow. When on the lips, it commonly looks like a persistent crusting ulcer that does not heal, and slowly grows. Other symptoms may include difficult or painful swallowing, new lumps or bumps in the neck, a swelling in the mouth, or a feeling of numbness in the mouth or lips.

Risk factors include tobacco and alcohol use. With both tobacco and drinking alcohol the risk of oral cancer is 15 times greater. Other risk factors include HPV infection, chewing paan, and sun exposure on the lower lip. Oral cancer is a subgroup of head and neck cancers. Diagnosis is made by biopsy of the concerning area, followed by investigation with CT scan, MRI, PET, and examination to determine if it has spread to distant parts of the body.

Oral cancer can be prevented by avoiding tobacco products, limiting alcohol use, sun protection on the lower lip, HPV vaccination, and avoidance of paan. Treatments used for oral cancer can include a combination of surgery (to remove the tumor and regional lymph nodes), radiation therapy, chemotherapy or targeted therapy. The types of treatments will depend on the size, locations, and spread of the cancer taken into consideration with the general health of the patient.

Between 1999 and 2015 in the United States rate of oral cancer increased 6% (from 10.9 to 11.6 per 100,000). Even though smoking cessation campaigns have decreased the rate of tobacco induced tumors, the rate of HPV related cancers has offset the gains. Deaths from oral cancer during this time deceased 7% (from 2.7 to 2.5 per 100,000). Oral cancer has an overall survival rate of 63% but varies widely depending on when treatment is started. If treated early in the disease, oral cancer has an 84% 5-year survival rate, compared to 65% if it has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, and 39% if it has spread to distant parts of the body. Survival rates also are highly dependent on the location of the disease in the mouth.



Signs and symptoms[edit]

Swelling of the right neck from the spread of oral cancer.

Ulceration on the left lower lip caused by cancer

The signs and symptoms of oral cancer depend on the location of the tumor. The classic warning sign is a persistent rough patch with ulceration and a raised border that is minimally painful. On the lip, the ulcer is more commonly crusting and dry, and in the pharynx it is more commonly a mass. It can also be associated with a white patch, loose teeth, bleeding gums, persistent ear ache, a feeling of numbness in the lip and chin or swelling. In the case of pharyngeal cancer there can also be difficulty or painful swallowing, and an altered voice. Typically the lesions have very little pain until they become larger and then are associated with a burning sensation. As the lesion spreads to the lymph nodes of the neck, a painless hard mass will develop, and if it spreads elsewhere in the body general aches can develop most often due to bone metastasis.


Oral squamous cell carcinoma is a disease of environmental factors, the greatest of which is tobacco. Like all environmental factors, the rate at which cancer will develops is dependent on the dose, frequency and method of application of the carcinogen (the substance that is causing the cancer). Aside from cigarette smoking, other carcinogens for oral cancer include alcohol, viruses (particularly HPV 16 and 18), radiation, and UV light.


In a study of Europeans, smoking and other tobacco use was associated with about 75 percent of oral cancer cases, caused by irritation of the mucous membranesof the mouth from smoke and heat of cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. Tobacco contains over 60 known carcinogens, and the combustion of it, and by-products from this process, is the primary mode of involvement. Use of chewing tobacco or snuff causes irritation from direct contact with the mucous membranes.

Tobacco use in any form by itself, and even more so in combination with heavy alcohol consumption, continues to be an important risk factor for oral cancer. However, due to the current trends in the spread of HPV16, as of early 2011 the virus is now considered the primary causative factor in 63% of newly diagnosed patients.


Some studies in Australia, Brazil and Germany pointed to alcohol-containing mouthwashes as also being potential causes. The claim was that constant exposure to these alcohol-containing rinses, even in the absence of smoking and drinking, leads to significant increases in the development of oral cancer. However, studies conducted in 1985, 1995, and 2003 summarize that alcohol-containing mouth rinses are not associated with oral cancer. In a March 2009 brief, the American Dental Association said “the available evidence does not support a connection between oral cancer and alcohol-containing mouthrinse”. A 2008 study suggests that acetaldehyde (a breakdown product of alcohol) is implicated in oral cancer, but this study specifically focused on abusers of alcohol and made no reference to mouthwash. Any connection between oral cancer and mouthwash is tenuous without further investigation.

Human papillomavirus

Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), particularly type 16 (there are over 180 types), is a known risk factor and independent causative factor for oral cancer. A fast-growing segment of those diagnosed does not present with the historic stereotypical demographics. Historically that has been people over 50, blacks over whites 2 to 1, males over females 3 to 1, and 75% of the time people who have used tobacco products or are heavy users of alcohol. This new and rapidly growing sub population between 30 and 50 years old, is predominantly nonsmoking, white, and males slightly outnumber females. Recent research from multiple peer-reviewed journal articles indicates that HPV16 is the primary risk factor in this new population of oral cancer victims. HPV16 (along with HPV18) is the same virus responsible for the vast majority of all cervical cancers and is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US. Oral cancer in this group tends to favor the tonsil and tonsillar pillars, base of the tongue, and the oropharynx. Recent data suggest that individuals that come to the disease from this particular cause have a significant survival advantage, as the disease responds better to radiation treatments than tobacco caused disease.

Betel nut

Chewing betel, paan and Areca is known to be a strong risk factor for developing oral cancer. In India where such practices are common, oral cancer represents up to 40% of all cancers, compared to just 4% in the UK.

Stem cell transplantation

Patients after hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) are at a higher risk for oral squamous cell carcinoma. Post-HSCT oral cancer may have more aggressive behavior with poorer prognosis, when compared to oral cancer in non-HSCT patients. This effect is supposed to be owing to the continuous lifelong immune suppression and chronic oral graft-versus-host disease.

Premalignant lesions

Oral leukoplakia on the buccal mucosa.

A premalignant (or precancerous) lesion is defined as “a benign, morphologically altered tissue that has a greater than normal risk of malignant transformation.” There are several different types of premalignant lesion that occur in the mouth. Some oral cancers begin as white patches (leukoplakia), red patches (erythroplakia) or mixed red and white patches (erythroleukoplakia or “speckled leukoplakia”). Other common premalignant lesions include oral lichen planus (particularly the erosive type), oral submucous fibrosis and actinic cheilitis. In the Indian subcontinent oral submucous fibrosis is very common. This condition is characterized by limited opening of mouth and burning sensation on eating of spicy food. This is a progressive lesion in which the opening of the mouth becomes progressively limited, and later on even normal eating becomes difficult. It occurs almost exclusively in India and Indian communities living abroad.


Oral squamous cell carcinoma is the end product of an unregulated proliferation of mucous basal cells. A single precursor cell is transformed into a clone consisting of many daughter cells with an accumulation of altered genes called oncogenes. What characterizes a malignant tumor over a benign one is it’s ability to metastasize. This ability is independent of the size or grade of the tumor (often seemingly slow growing cancers like the adenoid cystic carcinoma can metastasis widely). It is not just rapid growth that characterizes a cancer, but their ability to secrete enzymes, angiogeneic factors, invasion factors, growth factors and many other factors that allow it to spread.


A large squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue as seen on CT imaging

Histopathologic appearance of a well differentiated squamous cell carcinoma specimen. Hematoxylin-eosin stain

Early diagnosis of oral cancer patients would decrease mortality and help to improve treatment. Oral surgeons and dentists can diagnose these patients in the early stages. Health providers, dentists, and oral surgeons shall have high knowledge and awareness that would help them to provide better diagnosis for oral cancer patients. An examination of the mouth by the health care provider, dentist, oral surgeons shows a visible and/or palpable (can be felt) lesion of the lip, tongue, or other mouth area. The lateral/ventral sides of the tongue are the most common sites for intraoral SCC. As the tumor enlarges, it may become an ulcer and bleed. Speech/talking difficulties, chewing problems, or swallowing difficulties may develop. A feeding tube is often necessary to maintain adequate nutrition. This can sometimes become permanent as eating difficulties can include the inability to swallow even a sip of water. The doctor can order some special investigations which may include a chest x-ray, CT or MRI scans, and tissue biopsy.

While a dentist, physician or other health professional may suspect a particular lesion is malignant, there is no way to tell by looking alone – since benign and malignant lesions may look identical to the eye. A non-invasive brush biopsy (BrushTest) can be performed to rule out the presence of dysplasia (pre-cancer) and cancer on areas of the mouth that exhibit an unexplained color variation or lesion. The only definitive method for determining if cancerous or precancerous cells are present is through biopsy and microscopic evaluation of the cells in the removed sample. A tissue biopsy, whether of the tongue or other oral tissues and microscopic examination of the lesion confirm the diagnosis of oral cancer or precancer.


The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) in 2013 stated evidence was insufficient to determine the balance of benefits and harms of screening for oral cancer in adults without symptoms by primary care providers. The American Academy of Family Physicians comes to similar conclusions while the American Cancer Societyrecommends that adults over 20 years who have periodic health examinations should have the oral cavity examined for cancer. The American Dental Associationrecommends that providers remain alert for signs of cancer during routine examinations.

There are a variety of screening devices, however, there is no evidence that routine use of these devices in general dental practice is helpful. However, there are compelling reasons to be concerned about the risk of harm this device may cause if routinely used in general practice. Such harms include false positives, unnecessary surgical biopsies and a financial burden.


Oral cancer is a subgroup of head and neck cancers which includes those of the oropharynx, larynx, nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, salivary glands, and thyroid gland. Oral melanoma, while part of head and neck cancers is considered separately. Other cancers can occur in the mouth (such as bone cancer, lymphoma, or metastatic cancers from distant sites) but are also considered separately from oral cancers.


Tongue carcinoma in a jar

Surgical excision (removal) of the tumor is usually recommended if the tumor is small enough, and if surgery is likely to result in a functionally satisfactory result. Radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy is often used in conjunction with surgery, or as the definitive radical treatment, especially if the tumour is inoperable. Surgeries for oral cancers include:

  • Maxillectomy (can be done with or without orbital exenteration)
  • Mandibulectomy (removal of the mandible or lower jaw or part of it)
  • Glossectomy (tongue removal, can be total, hemi or partial). When glossectomy is performed for smaller tumors (< 4 cm), the adequacy of resection (margin status) is best assessed from the resected specimen itself. The status of the margin (positive/tumor cut through versus negative/clear margin) obtained from the glossectomy specimen appears to be of prognostic value, while the status of the margin sampled from the post-glossectomy defect is not. The method of margin sampling appears to correlate with local recurrence: preference for tumor bed/defect margins may be associated with worse local control.
  • Radical neck dissection
  • Mohs surgery or CCPDMA
  • Combinational, e.g. glossectomy and laryngectomy done together
  • Feeding tube to sustain nutrition

Owing to the vital nature of the structures in the head and neck area, surgery for larger cancers is technically demanding. Reconstructive surgery may be required to give an acceptable cosmetic and functional result. Bone grafts and surgical flaps such as the radial forearm flap are used to help rebuild the structures removed during excision of the cancer. An oral prosthesis may also be required. Most oral cancer patients depend on a feeding tube for their hydration and nutrition. Some will also get a port for the chemo to be delivered. Many oral cancer patients are disfigured and suffer from many long term after effects. The after effects often include fatigue, speech problems, trouble maintaining weight, thyroid issues, swallowing difficulties, inability to swallow, memory loss, weakness, dizziness, high frequency hearing loss and sinus damage.

Survival rates for oral cancer depend on the precise site and the stage of the cancer at diagnosis. Overall, 2011 data from the SEER database shows that survival is around 57% at five years when all stages of initial diagnosis, all genders, all ethnicities, all age groups, and all treatment modalities are considered. Survival rates for stage 1 cancers are approximately 90%, hence the emphasis on early detection to increase survival outcome for patients. Similar survival rates are reported from other countries such as Germany.

Following treatment, rehabilitation may be necessary to improve movement, chewing, swallowing, and speech. Speech and language pathologists may be involved at this stage.

Chemotherapy is useful in oral cancers when used in combination with other treatment modalities such as radiation therapy. It is not used alone as a monotherapy. When a cure is unlikely, it can also be used to extend life and can be considered palliative but not curative care. Biological agents such as Cetuximab have recently been shown to be effective in the treatment of squamous cell head and neck cancers, and are likely to have an increasing role in the future management of this condition when used in conjunction with other established treatment modalities. Likewise, molecularly targeted therapies and immunotherapies maybe be effective for the treatment of oral and oropharyngeal cancers. Adding epidermal growth factor receptor monoclonal antibody (EGFR mAb) to standard treatment may increase survival, keeping the cancer limited to that area of the body and may decrease reappearance of the cancer.

Treatment of oral cancer will usually be by a multidisciplinary team, with treatment professionals from the realms of radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, nutrition, dentistry, and even psychology all possibly involved with diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation, and patient care.


  • Postoperative disfigurement of the face, head and neck
  • Complications of radiation therapy, including dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Other metastasis (spread) of the cancer
  • Significant weight loss

Prognosis depends on stage and overall health. Grading of the invasive front of the tumor is a very important prognostic parameter.




Rate this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *