Oral cancer may occur in any part of the mouth, including the cheeks, gums, lips, tongue and the floor or roof of the mouth. When treated by a multidisciplinary team of experts at a high volume medical center, patients can have excellent outcomes.
What Are Some Risk Factors for Oral Cancer?
Oral cancers have several known risk factors and are more common in men than in women.
- Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars, pipes and snuff
- Heavy alcohol use
- Poor oral hygiene and chronic inflammation
- Weakened immune system
- Human papillomavirus (HPV, although much more common in cancers of the tonsil and base of tongue, is also a known risk factor for oral cancer. Excessive sun exposure to the lips
Regular oral cancer exams should be performed by your dentist and primary care doctor and can help with early detection. Signs and symptoms of oral cancer may include:
- A sore that bleeds and/or doesn't heal
- Mouth soreness or pain
- A growth, lump or thickening of the lining of your mouth
- Difficult and/or painful chewing or swallowing
- Loose teeth
- Poorly fitting dentures
- Jaw discomfort and/or stiffness
If you have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, be sure to make an appointment with your doctor or dentist. Early detection of oral cancer is critical for your best possible outcome. Need help finding a primary doctor? Call 414-777-7700. We work with your schedule to get you an appointment as quickly as possible.
As part of the initial visit, the following tests may be used to detect, diagnose and stage a lip or oral cavity cancer.
- Physical exam: Examining for any abnormalities of lips or oral cavity
- Endoscopy: May be used to look for signs that the cancer has spread beyond the mouth
- Biopsy: Sampling of tissue to be viewed under a microscope
- Imaging: May include ultrasound, CT scan, MRI and/or a PET scan
Learn more about these head and neck cancer diagnostic techniques.
Unique Treatment Options
If a cancer diagnosis is confirmed, our experts work closely with you to determine the best course of treatment. Treatment options may depend on the following:
- Stage of the cancer
- Size and location of the tumor
- Age and general health status
- Treatment impact on function
- Patient preferences and goals of treatment
Our team has specialized expertise in treating lip and oral cavity cancer, and we personalize care to a patient’s specific needs.
Your treatment may include the following based on your unique treatment plan.
- Radiation therapy
- Reconstructive surgery
- Clinical trials: Because we are part of the only academic medical center in eastern Wisconsin, you may have access to clinical trials to help improve your outcome.
Other treatments we offer that are unique to our program include:
- Speech and swallowing therapy
- Rehabilitation services, including physical and occupational therapy
- Nutrition support
- Pain management
- Dental care
- Long-term surveillance
- Patient support
Oral Cancer - Video FAQ
Joseph Zenga, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, describes oral cancer, its origin and treatment success rates.
Oral cancer is a type of cancer that is found and originates in the mouth. It comes from the mucous membrane linings of the mouth. In almost all cases (over 95% of cases), it is squamous cancer — squamous-cell cancer. There are other types of cancer, but that's the most common.
It is often a smoking-related cancer, but we have many patients that have no smoking history who develop this type of cancer. The main thing to know about mouth cancer is that, if it is caught early, treatment is really successful — both from a cancer standpoint and a functional standpoint in terms of speech and swallow.
Stuart Wong, MD, medical oncologist, describes oral, or mouth, cancers.
Oral cancers, or what we call mouth cancers, are tumors that are not related to the HPV virus. Whereas the tumors that occur in the back of the throat, which we call the oropharynx, are most commonly the type that is associated with the HPV virus.
Joseph Zenga, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, explains the risk factors for oral cancer.
Most oral cancers are found in patients who are in their 50s to 70s, and many are smoking related. It takes many years of exposure to tobacco products to ultimately form these cancers. In patients who have no tobacco exposure, it is not always clear how long these cancers have been present.
What we do know is that once the cancers get to an advanced stage, they tend to grow and spread quickly. We want to see is patients in the earliest stage possible, so that we can get control of that disease.
Joseph Zenga, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, explains oral cancer treatment options.
Oral cancer treatment is primarily surgical. People have tried many different strategies over the last several decades in terms of how to treat mouth cancers. What they've found is that patients who have that cancer fully removed surgically and then get whatever radiation they might need after surgery, they are the most successful in fully curing that disease.
In early stages of mouth cancer, surgery is highly curative, in and of itself, and oftentimes those patients don't need any radiation therapy. For patients with more advanced cancers, they still require surgery. In many situations, we need to do reconstructive procedures to best help those patients with retaining speech and swallow after surgery to give them the best possible long-term function.
Chemotherapy is sometimes used in mouth cancer. It is almost never used in salivary gland cancer, but it is sometimes used in mouth cancer. It is just that it is pretty rare. Basically, you have to have a cancer that's really significant, meaning that either you cannot get it all out surgically and there are positive margins at the edges or the cancer is so aggressive that it is actually busting out of the capsule of the lymph node. In those two situations, positive margins or extra-capsular extension as it's called, that patient would get chemotherapy.
In almost all situations, though, it is radiation. Chemotherapy makes radiation more effective. In and of itself, it is not curative, so nobody gets surgery followed by chemo for example. It is either surgery followed by radiation, or it is surgery followed by chemo plus radiation.
Joseph Zenga, MD, head and neck surgical oncologist, discusses the survival rate for oral cancer patient.
The survival rate for oral cancer is excellent when it is an early stage disease. Patients just need surgery alone, and their cure rates are over 90%. People swallow well. They speak well.
It is when cancers are more advanced — stage III and IV — that they need larger surgeries, reconstructive procedures and radiation after surgery. Survival for those situations is about 50 to 60%, so absolutely worth treating. Many patients with advanced cancer come in the door, and we end up getting a cure for them.
Virtual Visits Are Available
Safe and convenient virtual visits by video let you get the care you need via a mobile device, tablet or computer wherever you are. We’ll gather your medical records for you and get our experts’ input so we can offer treatment options without an in-person visit. To schedule a virtual visit, call 1-866-680-0505.
Cancer and the COVID-19 Vaccine
There is currently no data that suggests current or former cancer patients should avoid getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Cancer can weaken your immune system, so we recommend that most patients get the vaccine as soon as possible.