Oral cancer is also known as mouth cancer. Mouth cancers typically start as a lump, bump or patch in the mouth (these are called “lesions”). Something suspicious that does not go away after a few weeks is usually discovered either by you, your dentist or another doctor. Most mouth cancers are squamous cell carcinomas (cancer cells come from the cells lining all parts of the inside of the mouth), but salivary gland cancers and other types of cancers can arise in the mouth as well.
Non-cancerous Oral Lesions
Remember, not all lumps, bumps and patches are cancer. Some non-cancerous lesions in the mouth that might be mistaken for cancer include:
Pre-cancerous Oral Lesions
There are also a few common pre-malignant lesions of which you should be aware.
Leukoplakia: This is simply a white patch in the mouth that can’t be rubbed off. Whether it goes away, grows bigger or transforms into cancer is quite unpredictable, and there is no standard treatment for it. The chance that leukoplakia is cancer is somewhere around 5 percent according to one major study.1Waldron CA,Shafer WG. Cancer.Leukoplakia revisited. A clinicopathologic study 3256oralleukoplakias.1975 Oct;36(4):1386-92. You may be told that you have leukoplakia as a diagnosis after a biopsy shows that it is benign (not cancer) and there is no other apparent diagnosis. Just be sure to get a regular follow-up with a specialist.
Erythroplakia: This is simply a red patch somewhere in the mouth that has no apparent cause or other diagnosis. This type of lesion is more likely to be cancer than a leukoplakia but still may not be. All of these lesions should be biopsied to help find a diagnosis if possible or at least to make sure there are no cancer cells within them.
Dysplasia: This is a diagnosis of abnormal cells made by looking at cells under a microscope after a biopsy. The dysplasia can be mild, moderate or severe, depending on how deep into the surface layer of tissue the abnormal cells extend. If the abnormal cells do not invade beyond the surface layer, dysplasia is not considered cancer. However, if the abnormal cells extend through the entire depth of the surface layer, this is called severe dysplasia or carcinoma in situ, and it should be removed as if it is cancer. Mild dysplasia can sometimes go away. It is not totally clear what percentage of dysplasia progresses to cancer, so it should be followed by a specialist.
Lichen planus: This is a disease in which your own body attacks cells within the lining of your mouth. It causes lesions that can look like cancer. The diagnosis is made by a biopsy. There is no real cure. Suspicious lesions need to be followed closely by a specialist because there is a small chance cancer could develop at these or other sites in the mouth.3, Mignogna MD, Lo Russo L, Fedele S, Ruoppo E, Califano L, Lo Muzio L. Clinical behaviour of malignant transforming oral lichen planus. Eur J Surg Oncol. 2002 Dec;28(8):838-43.4de Vries N, Van der Waal I, Snow GB. Multiple primary tumours in oral cancer. International journal of oral and maxillofacial surgery. Feb 1986;15(1):85-87.
What prompted me to get checked out was some lesions in my mouth that looked like scrapes or scratches. They didn’t hurt, but I did notice them for awhile. They weren’t going away.Tony L. (oral cancer survivor)
An overview of the basics of oral cancer.Buccal Cancer
Buccal cancer begins inside the mouth in the mucosal lining of the cheek. Explore this page to learn more about buccal cancer.Lip Cancer
Lip cancer begins on the lips, either upper or lower. Explore this page to learn more about lip cancer.Oromandibular Cancer
Oromandibular cancer involves the lower jaw. This can be from any oral cavity subsite, but most commonly starts at the gums (alveolar ridge), floor of mouth or retromolar trigone (mucosa behind the bottom molars). Explore this page to learn more about oromandibular cancer.Oral Salivary Gland Cancer
Oral salivary gland cancer begins in the minor salivary glands that are located inside the oral cavity underneath the mucosal layer all over the mouth and throat. Explore this page to learn more about oral salivary gland cancer.Palatomaxillary Cancer
Palatomaxillary cancer begins in the roof of the mouth (the hard palate) or the upper alveolar ridge (which is part of the maxilla or upper jaw). However, cancers from other regions such as the retromolar trigone (mucosa behind the bottom molars) or buccal mucosa can involve the palatomaxillary region as well. Explore this page to learn more about palatomaxillary cancer.Tongue Cancer
Tongue cancer begins in the oral tongue, which is the front two-thirds of the tongue. Explore this page to learn more about tongue cancer.
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