Lip and oral cavity cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lips or mouth. The oral cavity includes the following:

  • The front two-thirds of the tongue
  • The gingiva (gums)
  • The buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks)
  • The floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue
  • The hard palate (the roof of the mouth)
  • The retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth)

Most lip and oral cavity cancers start in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells that line the lips and oral cavity. These are called squamous cell carcinomas. Cancer cells may spread into deeper tissue as the cancer grows. Squamous cell carcinoma usually develops in areas of leukoplakia (white patches of cells that do not rub off). Lip and oral cavity cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Signs & Symptoms

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by lip and oral cavity cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
  • A lump or thickening on the lips or gums or in the mouth
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the lip or mouth
  • Change in voice
  • Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw
  • Swelling of jaw
  • Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat.

Lip and oral cavity cancer may not have any symptoms and is sometimes found during a regular dental exam.

Treatment

Patients with lip and oral cavity cancer should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors, like those at OHC, who are expert in treating head and neck cancer. Treatment will be overseen by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating people with cancer.

Because the lips and oral cavity are important for breathing, eating, and talking, patients may need special help adjusting to the side effects of the cancer and its treatment. The medical oncologist may refer the patient to other health professionals with special training in the treatment of patients with head and neck cancer. These include the following: Head and neck surgeon, radiation oncologist, dentist, speech therapist, dietitian, psychologist, rehabilitation specialist or plastic surgeon. Your OHC doctor will help you determine the best care team and plan for you.

There are two standard treatments:

  • Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment for all stages of lip and oral cavity cancer. Surgery may include the following:
    • Wide local excision: Removal of the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it. If cancer has spread into bone, surgery may include removal of the involved bone tissue.
    • Neck dissection: Removal of lymph nodes and other tissues in the neck. This is done when cancer may have spread from the lip and oral cavity.
    • Plastic surgery: An operation that restores or improves the appearance of parts of the body. Dental implants, a skin graft, or other plastic surgery may be needed to repair parts of the mouth, throat, or neck after removal of large tumors.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

  • Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing.

There are new types of treatment being tested in clinical trials.

  • Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing.
  • Hyperfractionated radiation therapy is radiation treatment in which the total dose of radiation is divided into small doses and the treatments are given more than once a day.
  • Hyperthermia therapy is a treatment in which body tissue is heated above normal temperature to damage and kill cancer cells or to make cancer cells more sensitive to the effects of radiation and certain anticancer drugs.