Mercy’s cancer specialists are highly experienced at diagnosing and treating oral cancer. We take a team approach that brings together oncologists, dentists, surgeons, radiologists and other professionals dedicated to providing complete and compassionate cancer care. Facing cancer can feel overwhelming at times. But at Mercy, your cancer care team is here for you at every step of the journey. We provide the care, services and compassion you need from diagnosis through survivorship.

About Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer, also known as mouth cancer, is a type of head and neck cancer that develops on the tongue, insides of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth, lips and gums. Oral cancer is the sixth most common cancer type worldwide and represents about 4% of U.S. cancers. Most oral cancers are squamous cell cancers, which are found in tissue linings and on skin surfaces. It can sometimes affect the ability to chew, swallow or speak. 

Lip Cancer

Lip cancer may appear as lesions (abnormal skin growths) or tumors on or in the lip ― and it’s often found during dental exams. Tobacco use and sun exposure are major risk factors for developing lip cancer. Warning signs may include:


  • Red or white patches on lips
  • Sores or lumps that don’t go away
  • Bleeding or painful lips
  • Jaw swelling

Jaw Cancer

Jaw cancer often starts in other places, such as the mouth, salivary glands or throat. Cancer in the lower jaw is called mandibular cancer. If it’s the upper jaw, it’s called hard palate cancer. Symptoms to watch for include:


  • Mouth sores (like canker sores)
  • Swelling in the mouth, jaw or on the side of the face
  • Difficulty opening the mouth or moving the jaw
  • Difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • Numbness in the cheek, teeth or lips
  • Red or white patches in the mouth
  • Loose or painful teeth, or dentures not fitting
  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Bad breath

Mouth Cancer

Oral (or mouth) cancers often develop on the tongue, lips and floor of the mouth. But they can also occur in the cheeks, roof of the mouth, gums and salivary glands. Symptoms may include:


  • Lump in the neck
  • Loose teeth
  • Swelling or sores that won’t heal
  • Swallowing difficulty or pain
  • Speech changes
  • Bleeding or numbness
  • Red or white patches on the tongue, mouth or gums
  • Unexplained weight loss

Tongue Cancer

Tongue cancer usually appears as lumps or sores on the sides of the tongue that don’t go away. Tongue cancer has two types:


  • Oral tongue cancer – cancer that develops in the front two-thirds of the tongue (the part you can stick out)
  • Base tongue cancer – cancer that’s found in the back third of the tongue (the part that extends down your throat)


In the early stages, tongue cancer has few to no symptoms. When it’s more advanced, signs may include:


  • Tongue pan
  • Throat fullness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Voice changes
  • Ear pain

While all the causes of oral cancer are unknown, men face twice the risk of developing oral cancer, especially men over the age of 50. Men and women over the age of 55 are at greater risk for oral cancer than younger adults. Additional factors that may increase your oral cancer risk include:


  • Tobacco and/or alcohol use - About 7 out of 10 oral cancer patients are heavy drinkers. Additionally, people who use both alcohol and tobacco are at greater risk of developing oral cancer than those who use one or the other.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection - HPV is one of the leading causes of oropharyngeal cancers
  • Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure
  • Smokeless tobacco use - use of smokeless tobacco products such as chewing tobacco, dip, snuff or water pipes (hookah or shush)
  • Family history of oral cancers
  • Excessive sun exposure - those who spend a lot of time in the sun without protecting their lips with sunblock are more at risk for developing oral cancers

Signs and symptoms of oral cancer include:


  • Persistent mouth pain, including tongue pain
  • Lip or mouth sores that bleed easily and don’t heal within two weeks
  • Red or white patches on the gums or tongue
  • Lumps or thickness in the cheeks
  • Loose teeth
  • Trouble chewing, swallowing or moving your tongue
  • Unintentional weight loss

Diagnosing Oral Cancer 

Dentists screen for oral cancer during routine dental exams. If cancer is suspected, additional tests will be needed. These tests help detect oral cancer early when treatments can be most successful. These tests include:

  • Physical exam - doctors will perform visual exams of the oral cavity and feel for lumps or abnormal tissues in your mouth and surrounding areas.
  • Biopsy - if concerns are found, your dentist may perform an oral brush biopsy, which is painless and involves taking a small tissue sample for analysis.

Treatment Options for Oral Cancer

When it’s found early, oral cancer is often curable. Talk with your Mercy doctor or dentist if you have pain, sores or other problems in your mouth. At Mercy, our goal is to provide the most effective oral cancer treatment with the fewest side effects. Personalized treatment plans are based on your type, location and stage of oral cancer. You may need one or more of the following treatments.

Surgery is commonly performed for early-stage oral cancers that haven't spread. Several types of procedures may be used, depending on the type of oral cancer, location and stage.

Reconstructive surgery can help restore the function and appearance of any areas affected by cancer treatment.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells and/or destroy their growth. Depending on the type of oral cancer, the stage and other factors, there are several ways radiation therapy might be used in oral cancer treatment. It may be used alone as the main treatment, after surgery (adjuvant therapy), before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy), with a targeted drug or as palliative care to help ease symptoms of advanced stages of oral cancer. There are 2 types of radiotherapy that are used in oral cancer treatment:  external beam radiation therapy and internal radiation therapy.

External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT)

EBRT is the most common radiation treatment for cancer. It’s called external because machines outside the body aim high-energy x-rays (or beams) at cancerous tissues. EBRT is used to treat a wide range of cancers, including some oral cancers.

Internal Radiation Therapy

Brachytherapy, also called internal radiation therapy, is a cancer treatment in which a radiation source is placed inside the body. Tiny implants in the form of seeds, wires or balloons are placed in or near cancer tumors. This allows high-dose radiation to reach small areas, such as those in the oral cavity.


Chemotherapy (chemo) uses drugs to slow or stop the growth of oral cancer cells. Chemo can be delivered directly into the veins by IV or taken orally. Mercy’s outpatient infusion centers provide a warm and comforting environment for receiving infusion therapy. Patients have the flexibility to receive chemo where it’s most convenient while keeping their electronic medical records centralized. If side effects to chemo arise, Mercy offers complementary treatments and therapies to reduce and manage them.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs that aim for specific components inside oral cancer cells (targets) that help them grow and spread. This means they destroy cancer cells while leaving your healthy cells intact.

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