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Oral cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on July 20, 2022.

Oral cancer begins in the mouth, also called the oral cavity. This region of the body includes the lips, the inside lining of the lips and cheeks, the teeth, the gums, most of the tongue, the floor of the mouth, and the bony roof of the mouth, or hard palate.

A separate cancer in the mouth region is called oropharyngeal cancer, which is a throat cancer. Oropharyngeal cancer may develop in the oropharynx, the back of the throat behind the mouth. Oropharyngeal cancer may include the back of the tongue, the back of the roof of the mouth, the tonsils and the walls of the upper throat. Oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancer are also considered cancers of the head and neck.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 58,450 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer in 2024.

No oral cancer patient is the same. Get personalized treatment.

The cancer experts at City of Hope have extensive experience diagnosing these diseases and developing a cancer care treatment plan tailored to each patient’s specific type of oral or oropharyngeal cancer. Because oral cancer and its treatments often affect the patient’s physical appearance and ability to eat and perform other everyday activities, surgical reconstructive techniques may be considered.

This overview will cover the basic facts about oral cancer, including:

If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of oral cancer and want to schedule an appointment for diagnostic testing, or if you’re interested in a second opinion on your oral cancer diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

What causes oral or oropharyngeal cancer?

Who gets oral or oropharyngeal cancer?

The risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancers increases with age, though people younger than 55 may also develop the diseases. The average age at diagnosis is 62, with two-thirds of people with the cancers over 55.

Men are more than twice as likely as women to develop oral or oropharyngeal cancer. That may be related to the heavy use of alcohol and tobacco products, which is a major risk factor seen more commonly in men than in women.

Margery Gadd

Margery G.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

"I am extremely thankful for the support and love my family has given me. My husband, John, has been with me at every visit to City of Hope. My children have also been supportive through this journey. I have so much to live for, and am planning to be around for a very long time."


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Oral and oropharyngeal cancer types

Mouth cancer includes cancers of the lips, gum and tongue. Lip cancer is the most common form of oral cancer and can include both squamous cell and basal cell types of cancer.

Tongue cancer, which forms in the front two-thirds of the tongue, usually develops in squamous cells, and is an oral cancer. Cancer that forms in the back third of the tongue is oropharyngeal cancer.

The types of oral or oropharyngeal cancer may include:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, which makes up more than 90 percent of cancers in the oral cavity (squamous cells line the mouth and throat)
  • Verrucous carcinoma, a slow-growing cancer made up of squamous cells that rarely spreads to other parts of the body but may invade nearby tissue
  • Minor salivary gland carcinoma, which includes adenoid cystic carcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma and polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma
  • Lymphoma, which develops in lymph nodes and lymph tissue and is found in the tonsils and the base of the tongue

Benign tumors (non-cancerous) and tumor-like conditions may develop in the oral cavity and oropharynx. Because these conditions may develop into cancer, benign tumors are often surgically removed as a form of cancer prevention. Types of benign lesions include:

  • Eosinophilic granuloma
  • Fibroma
  • Granular cell tumor
  • Karatoacanthoma
  • Leiomyoma
  • Osteochondroma
  • Lipoma
  • Schwannoma
  • Neurofibroma
  • Papilloma
  • Condyloma acuminatum
  • Verruciform xanthoma
  • Pyogenic granuloma
  • Rhabdomyoma
  • Odontogenic tumors
  • Leukoplakia and erythroplakia

Learn more about oral cancer types

Oral and oropharyngeal cancer symptoms

Diagnosing oral and oropharyngeal cancers

Many oral cancers are found by oral health care professionals during routine dental checkups. Paying attention to changes in the oral cavity is critical for early detection, especially for people who regularly smoke tobacco and drink alcohol. Oral and oropharyngeal cancer cells don’t usually cause symptoms when the disease is in its early stages.

Along with a clinical exam of the mouth, other tools used to diagnose oral or oropharyngeal cancer may include:

Learn more about diagnostic procedures for oral cancer

Oral and oropharyngeal cancer treatment options

City of Hope approach to helping you maintain your quality of life

At City of Hope, we know that oral cancer and its treatments may affect a patient’s quality of life. The cancer may cause symptoms such as pain, bleeding and trouble swallowing, for example. It also may be necessary to use a feeding tube while undergoing treatment. And certain treatments may affect your energy level and ability to perform everyday tasks.

Many oral cancer patients who need surgery have concerns about disfigurement. But recent advances in reconstructive surgery help patients restore their appearance, sometimes with little or no sign of change. Your care team will work closely with you to ensure that your treatment is appropriate for your health and well-being.

Your care team will also work closely with supportive care clinicians to help you manage cancer-related symptoms and side effects, both caused by the cancer itself and the treatments designed to attack it.