Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is the growth of cancerous (malignant) cells in the mouth. Oral cancer, also called oral cavity cancer or mouth cancer, makes up about 85% of cancers classified as head and neck cancer.

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Oral Cancer: Expert Care at Henry Ford

At the Henry Ford Cancer Institute, our expert cancer specialists have years of experience diagnosing and treating oral cancer. Our highly skilled team – including physicians, nurses, speech pathologists and dentists, when necessary – provides each patient with personalized care and support.

At our center, you will find:

  • Minimally invasive surgery: Our surgeons are experts in minimally invasive surgery for oral cancer, with procedures designed to minimize damage to the mouth, throat and voice box. Our team also is highly skilled at reconstruction of the face, jaw and throat.
  • Highly targeted radiation therapies: We offer precise radiation treatments to pinpoint cancer cells with less damage to healthy tissue. Our radiation oncologists (doctors who specialize in radiation treatment) specialize in treating head and neck cancer, so they thoroughly understand the delicate structures of this part of the body.
  • Innovative research and clinical trials: We offer access to clinical trials that test emerging new therapies that are not yet widely available. Read more about research and clinical trials.
  • Collaborative approach: Our team of surgeons, medical doctors, otolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat specialists) and speech and swallowing therapists collaborates closely to provide expert medical care and emotional support for you and your loved ones. Meet our team.
  • Strong support for your recovery: Our support team is one of the most extensive in the nation. Unlike most centers, we offer a dedicated psychologist who can help you and your loved ones through the challenges of treatment, and our speech-language pathologist and dietician provide the help you need at your regular treatment visits, without having to make additional appointments.

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

More than 48,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer in the United States each year. Oral cancer occurs twice as often in men as in women. Most people diagnosed with oral cancer are over age 40, although it is becoming more common in younger people.

Most people who are diagnosed with oral cancer have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Using tobacco: People who use any form of tobacco are at risk for oral cancer. Smokeless tobacco users have the highest risk, but people who smoke cigarettes, cigars or pipes have increased risk too. Get information about Henry Ford’s tobacco treatment services.
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Infection with HPV (human papillomavirus): HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. It is the same virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer, although physicians diagnose many cases of HPV-caused oral cancer in men.
  • Excessive sun exposure: Cancers on the outer lip are more common in fair-skinned people who have been exposed to sun
  • Hereditary conditions (conditions that biological family members share can make certain types of cancer more likely): We offer cancer genetics counseling for people who may have these conditions.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Many people do not notice oral cancer at first because it does not have any obvious initial symptoms. Often times, it begins as a small sore in the mouth, including the gums, lips, tongue, throat or tonsils.

Common symptoms include:

  • Sores, swelling, thick spots, lumps or crusts inside the mouth or on the lips that do not heal within 2 weeks
  • White or red patches in the mouth that do not heal within 2 weeks
  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • Pain, numbness or tenderness in the mouth, face, neck or ears
  • Difficulty moving your tongue or jaw, such as to chew, swallow or speak
  • Hoarseness or change in your voice that lasts for a long time
  • Sore throat, or the feeling that something is caught in the back of your throat, that does not go away
  • Loosened teeth, a change in the way your teeth fit together or a change in the fit of your dentures
  • Dramatic weight loss

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to schedule an appointment with an experienced head and neck cancer specialist for an accurate diagnosis.

Oral Cancer Diagnosis at Henry Ford

We offer oral cancer screening to help detect cancer early and when it is highly treatable. If we suspect you may have oral cancer, we perform comprehensive diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis.

The first step in oral cancer diagnosis is a physical examination. Your doctor will look for bumps, sores, or abnormal areas inside your mouth as well as on your neck, face, or head. We may also order one of the following tests:

  • Laryngoscopy: Using small mirrors or a tube with a light and camera, we can examine your throat and your larynx (voice box). Your doctor may suggest a numbing spray on the back of the throat first.
  • Biopsy: We may order a gum biopsy or a tongue biopsy. A biopsy takes a sample of suspicious cells for laboratory examination. In the lab, scientists can determine if cancer is present and needs treatment.
  • Imaging, such as X-ray, MRI or CT scan: We may order tests to take pictures of the inside of your body. These tests might include a CT (computed tomography) scan, X-rays or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
  • PET scan or bone scan: To learn whether cancer has spread in your body, we may order a PET (positron emission tomography) scan or a bone scan. These tests use a mild radioactive substance to check the function of your cells and tissues.

Staging Oral Cancer

Part of oral cancer diagnosis is identifying the cancer’s stage, or the size of the cancer and whether it has spread. Understanding the stage helps doctors choose the best treatment option for you. Learn more about oral cancer treatment.

Physicians consider all aspects of the cancer to classify it in one of four stages:

  • Stage 0: The tumor is growing only in the outer layers of the oral tissue and has not spread. This stage is also called carcinoma in situ.
  • Stage I: The tumor is about 2 centimeters (¾ inch) or smaller, and it has not spread to other locations outside the oral cavity (mouth and throat).
  • Stage II: The tumor is larger than 2 centimeters (¾ inch) but smaller than 4 centimeters (1½ inches). The tumor has not spread outside the oral cavity.
  • Stage III: Either the tumor is larger than 4 centimeters (1½ inches) and has not spread, or it is smaller but has spread to one lymph node.
  • Stage IV: This stage indicates that the cancer has spread deeper into the tissues, has spread into nearby parts of the body or has spread into the lymph nodes. Physicians use several sub-categories (IVA, IVB or IVC) to describe the tumor’s specific location.

Options for Treatment

Learn more about the treatment options for head and neck cancers

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