Oral Cavity (Tongue, Mouth) and Lip Cancer

The oral cavity includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums (gingiva), the lining inside the cheeks and lips (buccal mucosa), the floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue, the bony roof of the mouth (hard palate), both upper and lower jaw bony ridges, and the small area behind the wisdom teeth (retromolar trigone).

Every year, more than 25,000 cancers of the lips and oral cavity are diagnosed in the United States. About six of every 100,000 Americans develop these types of cancer. Cancers of the tongue are the most common cancers inside the oral cavity and affect three in every 100,000 Americans.

Oral Cancer Risk Factors

The main risk factors for oral cancers are alcohol and tobacco use, which cause more than 75 percent of oral and lip cancers. (Compared with people who either use tobacco or drink alcohol, people who use both are at much greater risk of developing these cancers.)

Oral Cancer Symptoms

  • Ulcers or sores in the mouth that don’t heal
  • Persistent bleeding, pain or numbness in the mouth
  • Lumps on the tongue or gums
  • Loose teeth
  • Ear pain
  • Lump in the neck
  • Difficulty moving the tongue or jaw
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Pain on swallowing

The chance of curing oral cancer is high when the disease is caught at an early stage. More than 80 percent of patients with early-stage oral cancer survive at least five years, while only about 35 percent of patients with late-stage oral cancers survive five years.

Survival rates also vary depending on where the cancer is located. Overall, the five-year survival rate is more than 90 percent for cancer of the lip, 60 percent for cancer of the tongue, and about 50 percent for cancer of the floor of the mouth.

Screening for Early Detection of Oral Cancer

In many cases, oral cancer does not cause symptoms until the disease has spread outside the mouth to the neck, and then it becomes more difficult to treat. Roswell Park is one of few institutions in the nation that offers oral cancer screening for high-risk patients with autofluorescent visualization (AFV).

AFV uses blue fluorescent light to identify abnormal areas in the soft tissue inside the mouth (the mucosa) that should be tested to see if they are cancerous. A study conducted at Roswell Park and published in the journal Cancer Prevention and Research (11/09) shows that AFV is more effective than regular white light for spotting both cancer and pre-cancerous spots.

You may be eligible for AFV screening at Roswell Park if:

  • You have a suspicious spot inside your mouth.
  • You have received an official diagnosis of oral cancer but have not started treatment.
  • You were treated in the past for head & neck cancer but have been cancer-free for six months. If you have been treated in the past for oral cancer, it is very important that you be screened regularly in case the cancer returns. Nearly a third of all patients who have been treated for oral cancer will develop it again after being treated the first time.

For more information about Roswell Park’s AFV screening program for those at high risk for oral cancer, call 1-716-845-5972.