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Oral Cancer Introduction

People with oral cancer now have more treatment choices and more hope for survival than ever before. Doctors keep finding new treatments for oral cancer and ways to help people with it have better lives.

What is oral cancer?

Oral cancer is cancer that starts in the mouth or oral cavity. Oral cancers are relatively common and highly curable if found and treated at an early stage. A doctor or dentist usually finds oral cancers in their early stages because the mouth can be easily examined. The majority of people who get oral cancer are smokers or use tobacco.

Anatomy of the oral cavity

Illustration of the Oral Cavitiy
Anatomy of the Oral Cavity (Mouth) Click to Enlarge

The oral cavity, or the mouth, includes many parts:

  • The lips

  • The lining inside the lips and cheeks (also called buccal mucosa)

  • The front two-thirds of the tongue (also called oral tongue)

  • The gums and teeth

  • The bottom of the mouth (floor of the mouth)

  • The bony ceiling of the mouth (also called the hard palate)

  • The area behind the wisdom teeth (called the retromolar trigone)

The back of the tongue (also called the base of the tongue), the back of the roof of the mouth (or soft palate), and the tonsils are not considered part of the oral cavity. Instead, they are considered part of the region called the oropharynx, or throat.

Every part of the mouth has an important function. For example, the lips are very important for speaking. The tongue is also very important for speaking, as well as for swallowing. The gums help protect the teeth and keep them healthy. Salivary glands in the mouth make saliva to keep the mouth wet and to help digest food.

Cancers of the oral cavity can cause eating and speaking problems, and can sometimes hinder normal breathing.

Types of oral cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 90 percent of all oral cavity tumors are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells make up the lining of the oral cavity, also called the mucosa.

Other less common types of oral cancer include tumors of the salivary glands, including adenoid cystic carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and other salivary gland cancers.


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