The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on April 2, 2021.

About oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancers

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 neck and head.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 54,010 people in the United States will be diagnosed with oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer in 2021.

The cancer experts at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) 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.

What causes oral or oropharyngeal cancer?

Risk factors that may increase the likelihood of developing oral or oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • Tobacco use and alcohol use, the most significant risk factor for these diseases
  • Exposure to ultraviolet light, from prolonged sun exposure or use of tanning beds, increasing the risk of lip cancer
  • Poor nutrition, with diets low in fruits and vegetables
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Use of betel quid, a leaf from the betel plant that’s wrapped around a crushed areca nut and chewed (sometimes used in combination with chewing tobacco)
  • Genetic syndromes, especially Fanconi anemia or dyskeratosis congenita
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
  • Immune system suppression, such as to prevent rejection of a transplant organ
  • Lichen planus
  • Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which may develop after a stem-cell transplant involving bone marrow
  • Marijuana use, which recent studies have suggested may put individuals more at risk for head and neck cancer

Learn about risk factors for oral 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.

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 make 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

Early symptoms of oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancer may be mistaken for other problems, such as a toothache or cold.

Some of the most common symptoms of oral and oropharyngeal cancers include:

  • Persistent lip or mouth sores that do not heal
  • Persistent lip or mouth pain
  • A lump or thickening in the cheek or lips
  • A white patch or red patch on the lips, gums, tongue, tonsil or lining of the mouth
  • A sore throat or persistent feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth
  • Jaw swelling that makes dentures hurt or fit poorly
  • Loose teeth
  • Pain in the teeth or jaw
  • Voice changes
  • A lump in the neck
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Persistent earache

Learn more about symptoms of oral cancer

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:

  • Barium swallow, also called an upper GI series
  • Biopsy, either incisional biopsy or exfoliative cytology
  • Dental exam
  • Endoscopy
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • PET scan
  • Indirect pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy
  • Panendoscopy
  • X-ray

Learn about diagnostic procedures for oral cancer

Oral and oropharyngeal cancer treatments

According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for lip cancer, the most common form of oral cancer, ranges from 28 percent for cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body to 92 percent for cancer that has not spread beyond the lips. The survival rates for other forms of oral and oropharyngeal cancer vary, depending on the part of the mouth impacted.

Treatment options for oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancer may include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy, including external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) and brachytherapy
  • Surgery, including tumor resection to remove a whole tumor
  • Targeted therapies, including drugs targeting epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR)
  • Immunotherapy

Learn about treatment options for oral cancer