Mouth (oral) cancer represents between three to four percent of all cancers diagnosed in Australia each year. Most people diagnosed with mouth cancer are over the age of 40, and it affects more men than women. In recent years there has been a small rise in the number of people affected in Australia.
Mouth cancer is caused by an uncontrolled growth of cells in the mouth. Mouth cancer includes cancer that starts anywhere in the mouth, including:
Nine out of 10 mouth cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which means they develop in the flat, skin-like cells that cover the inside of the mouth.
Other, rarer types of mouth cancer include:
Most people with mouth cancer have no early symptoms at all, but others may have:
These symptoms aren't always caused by mouth cancer but if you have them, visit your GP or dentist.
Doctors don't fully understand why mouth cancer develops. However, certain factors make mouth cancer more likely, such as:
The earlier mouth cancer is diagnosed, the better the chances of recovery. Your dentist may spot mouth cancer in its early stages during a routine check-up, so it's important to visit your dentist regularly.
Your doctor or dentist will ask you about any symptoms, and examine you using a small mirror for harder-to-see areas. They'll feel your neck and face for swellings. You may then be referred to an ear, nose or throat specialist for further tests.
You may have the following tests to confirm diagnosis:
If the biopsy shows that you have cancer, you will have further tests to find out how far it has spread and to help decide the type of treatment you will need. This is called staging the cancer. The tests may include:
Treatment depends on the type of mouth cancer, where it is and how far it has spread. Your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you. There are three main treatments for mouth cancer.
Surgery (including the use of lasers) involves removing just the affected tissue. How much surgery is needed depends on how much tissue is affected. Surgery is sometimes followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment to make sure all the cancer cells are destroyed.
Simple lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of mouth cancer. These include:
Cancer Council Australia
Australian Health Ministers' Advisory Council Steering Committee for National Planning of Oral Health.Oral health of Australians: national planning for oral health improvement. Final report. [online] Adelaide, SA: South Australian Department of Human Services. 2001 [accessed 14 Jul 2011] Available from: http://www.arcpoh.adelaide.edu.au/
Better Health Channel. Mouth cancer. [online] Melbourne, VIC: State Government of Victoria. c1999-2010 [Last reviewed Nov 2010, accessed 7 Jul 2011] Available from: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Mouth_cancer
British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (BAOMS). Staging for oral cancer. [online] London, UK: BAOMS. 2007 [Accessed 12 Jul 2011] Available from: http://www.baoms.org.uk/
Department of Human Services Victoria. Oral health guidelines for Victorians. Melbourne: Department of Human Services Victoria. 2003.
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Service guidance on improving outcomes in head and neck cancers. [online] Nov 2004 [accessed 14 Jul 2011] Available from: http://guidance.nice.org.uk/CSGHN
Product information: Erbitux (cetuximab) 5mg/mL [online]. 2010 [Last updated Feb 2011, accessed 14 Jul 2011] Available from: http://www.medicines.org.au/files/sgperbit.pdf (PDF, 151Kb)
Rossi S (ed). Australian Medicines Handbook. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook. 2011.
Simon C Everitt H Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005: 910.
Last published: 30 July 2011
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.
Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.