Oral cancer is part of a group of cancers called head and neck cancers. Oral cancer can develop in any part of the oral cavity or oropharynx. Most oral cancers begin in the tongue and in the floor of the mouth. Almost all oral cancers begin in the flat cells (squamous cells) that cover the surfaces of the mouth, tongue, and lips. These cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas.
When oral cancer spreads (metastasizes), it usually travels through the lymphatic system. Cancer cells that enter the lymphatic system are carried along by lymph, a clear, watery fluid. The cancer cells often appear first in nearby lymph nodes in the neck.
Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the neck, the lungs, and other parts of the body. When this happens, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells as the primary tumor. For example, if oral cancer spreads to the lungs, the cancer cells in the lungs are actually oral cancer cells. The disease is metastatic oral cancer, not lung cancer. It is treated as oral cancer, not lung cancer. Doctors sometimes call the new tumor "distant" or metastatic disease.
If you think you may be at risk, you should discuss this concern with your doctor or dentist if you need some dental handpiece to cure. You may want to ask about an appropriate schedule for checkups. Your health care team will probably tell you that not using tobacco and limiting your use of alcohol are the most important things you can do to prevent oral cancers. Also, if you spend a lot of time in the sun, using a lip balm that contains sunscreen and wearing a hat with a brim will help protect your lips.
Common symptoms of oral cancer include:
Patches inside your mouth or on your lips that are white, a mixture of red and white, or red
White patches (leukoplakia) are the most common. White patches sometimes become malignant.
Mixed red and white patches (erythroleukoplakia) are more likely than white patches to become malignant.
Red patches (erythroplakia) are brightly colored, smooth areas that often become malignant.
A sore on your lip or in your mouth that won't heal
Bleeding in your mouth
Difficulty or pain when swallowing
Difficulty wearing dentures
A lump in your neck
Anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor or dentist so that any problem can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible. Most often, these symptoms do not mean cancer. An infection or another problem can cause the same symptoms.