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What are the causes, symptoms and treatment of mouth cancer?

Also known as oral cancer, or cancer of the oral cavity, it is often used to describe a family of cancers that originate from your mouth. The most common areas of the oral cavity where these have been found include the lips, floor of mouth and aspects of the tongue. Uncommon areas include the cheeks, gums, roof of the mouth and the palate/tonsil area.

Common Causes

  • Poor oral hygiene and gum (periodontal) disease
  • Smoking & excessive alcohol consumption
  • Excessive exposure to the sun
  • Alternative substance use such as “Areca Nut” or “Betel Nut”
  • Family history of oral cancer
  • Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
  • Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)

Common Symptoms

  • Recurrent or non-healing ulcers
  • A persistent lump in the head and neck region
  • Pain or discomfort upon normal function such as eating, speaking or swallowing
  • Unexplained bleeding or numbness in the oral cavity
  • Loose teeth
  • Unexplained swellings
  • White or Red patches anywhere in your oral cavity
  • Unexplained weight loss

Diagnosis of oral cancer

Oral cancer can often begin and grow over time with minimal warning, however signs of oral cancer are often detected by your dentist during routine examinations, which is why it is important to schedule regular check-ups and professional cleans with your dentist. During these appointments, you will notice your dentist examine your soft-tissues including tongue, cheeks, lips, gums, floor of mouth and palate areas. If there is any suspicion of an abnormality existing in these tissues, your dentist will likely refer you to an Oral Medicine Specialist for further investigations such as:

  • Biopsy: a procedure whereby a sample of tissue is taken to analyse under microscope to aid in definitive diagnosis
  • X-Rays: help analyse hard tissues
  • Endoscopy: an instrument to examine the nose, sinuses, larynx and pharynx
  • Scans: PET, CT, MRI to determine the location and spread


If there is a confirmed diagnosis of oral cancer, treatment modalities often depend on the stage and grade of the condition. There is often a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy used to help defeat the cancer, with a full team of specialists across the board of health professionals for each case.

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