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. It can also be found on the outside of the mouth. 

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. Oral cancer is the 6th most common cancer in the UK. It is not that common, but as symptoms can often go untreated for a long while, morbidity is quite high.

Symptoms of mouth cancer

Symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • sore mouth ulcers that don’t heal within several weeks
  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth that don’t go away
  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the neck that don’t go away
  • unexplained looseness of teeth, or sockets that don’t heal after extractions
  • unexplained, persistent numbness or an odd feeling on the lip or tongue
  • sometimes, white or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue – these can be early signs of cancer, so they should also be investigated
  • changes in speech, such as a lisp

See your GP or dentist if these symptoms don’t heal within three weeks, particularly if you drink or smoke heavily.


Types of mouth cancer

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:

  • adenocarcinomas – cancers that develop inside the salivary glands
  • sarcomas – these grow from abnormalities in the bone, cartilage, muscle or other body tissue
  • oral malignant melanomas – where the cancer starts in melanocytes, the cells that produce skin pigment; they appear as very dark, mottled swellings that often bleed
  • lymphomas – these grow from cells normally found in lymph glands, but can also develop in the mouth

What causes mouth cancer?

Things that increase your risk of developing mouth cancer include:

  • smoking or using other forms of tobacco
  • drinking alcohol – people who drink and smoke heavily have a much higher risk compared with the population at large
  • infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) – HPV is the virus that causes genital warts. (Get your sexual health checked regularly).

 Who’s affected by mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the world (4% of all cancers worldwide), especially in Asian countries, but it’s much less common in the UK and Europe.

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.

In Spain, reports show an increase in oral cancer, especially in men, and is one of the highest incidences in Europe. One of the potential reasons for this in the increase in HPV infections in men (there is a lower rate in women due to the vaccination programme since 2008) which is in turn partly due to changes in social behaviours.

Mouth cancer from smoking.

See 4 ex-smokers in this video and how their lives have been impacted by their smoking habit.

Treating mouth cancer

There are three main treatment options for mouth cancer:

  • surgery – where the cancerous cells are surgically removed, along with a tiny bit of the surrounding normal tissue or cells to ensure the cancer is completely removed
  • radiotherapy – where high-energy X-rays are used to kill cancerous cells
  • chempotherapy – where powerful medications are used to kill cancerous cells

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.  If the cancer has been left a long time, surgery can leave life-changing deformities, with parts of the tongue or face requiring removal. Although, maintaining the appearance of your mouth will be given high priority.


Preventing mouth cancer

The three most effective ways of preventing mouth cancer developing, or preventing it coming back after successful treatment, are:

  • not smoking
  • ensuring you don’t drink more than the recommended weekly limits for alcohol
  • eating a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet that includes plenty of fresh vegetables – particularly tomatoes – and citrus fruits, olive oil and fish
  • Inspect your own mouth as part of your dental hygiene regime using the 8-step guide below

The NHS guidelines recommend 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.


Fortunately at Medcare, Dr Tim Holt routinely inspects for oral cancer as part of every examination. He checks all soft tissues and the lymph nodes for any signs. If he is suspicious of anything, he will immediately refer you to your GP.

Tim says that surprisingly, one of the biggest causes is chronic irritation. This is, for example, caused cheek biters or rough/broken teeth. They bite or irritate their cheek, the skin gets thick like a callous, they continue to bite/irritate the scarred tissue and cancer cells form. The cycle continues.

If you are in any doubt, if you have any patches or ulcers that have not healed after several weeks, do not just leave it. Book your FREE dental examination and be assured that you are in the right place for diagnosis and referral.

Call 966 860 258 or email for your FREE examination.


Dr Tim Holt