Mouth Cancer

Memorial Sloan Kettering head and neck surgeons Benjamin Roman during an operation.

Mouth cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that begins on the lips or in the mouth. It affects nearly 30,000 Americans each year, and it is most closely linked to tobacco and alcohol use. Another name for mouth cancer is oral cavity cancer. (The term oral cancer refers to a broader range of cancers that includes those starting in the salivary glands and throat, as well as the mouth.)

Mouth cancer is most often diagnosed after your dentist notices symptoms during a routine exam. Signs of cancer in the oral cavity include:

  • a sore or lump on the lip or in the mouth
  • a white and/or red patch on the gums, tongue, or cheeks
  • unusual or persistent bleeding, pain, or numbness in the mouth
  • swelling that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable

If the disease is diagnosed early, surgery performed by an expert in head and neck cancer is usually the main treatment. The prognosis is often very good. Treatment for mouth cancer may also include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of the two.

Memorial Sloan Kettering is a leading center for the treatment of mouth cancer. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks MSK as a top hospital in the nation for head and neck care. Learn more about our approach and expertise in treating mouth cancer.

Doctor in green surgical scrubs wearing glasses and cap looking at camera.
Q & A: MSK Leads the Way in Treating Head and Neck Cancers
Learn how MSK specialists treat head and neck cancers using the most innovative approaches.
Learn more

Where Does Mouth Cancer Start?

Illustration of the oral cavity, including the gums, hard palate, inner cheek (buccal mucosa), tongue, floor of mouth, and lips.

Mouth cancer can begin anywhere in the oral cavity. The oral cavity is another name for the mouth. It includes

  • the lips
  • the lining inside the cheeks and lips
  • the front two-thirds of the tongue
  • the upper and lower gums
  • the floor of the mouth under the tongue
  • the hard palate (the bony portion of the roof of the mouth)
  • the small area behind the wisdom teeth

The most common areas in the mouth where cancer develops are the tongue, the lips, and the floor of the mouth.

Cancer can also begin in other nearby areas, such as the back of the throat or the salivary glands. These types of cancer are not considered cancers of the oral cavity, and may require different treatments. Read more about salivary gland cancer and throat cancer.

What You Need to Know about Mouth Cancer

  • Mouth cancer surgery is best performed by doctors who are board certified in head and neck surgery. At MSK, our surgeons’ primary goal is to cure the cancer while preserving your appearance and the function of your mouth.
  • Radiation therapy is another important treatment for mouth cancer. MSK often recommends radiation and chemotherapy in combination (called chemoradiation). They boost the effectiveness of treatment and achieve better outcomes when used together.
  • Some people may require reconstructive surgery as part of their operation to remove the cancer. MSK’s plastic surgeons pioneered many of the techniques used to preserve patients’ appearance.
  • Side effects of mouth cancer and its treatment can include problems with swallowing and speech. Some people experience limited range of motion in the jaw. Others develop problems with their teeth. Having experts in rehabilitation, speech pathology, dental oncology, and more is an essential part of MSK’s holistic approach to mouth cancer care. Learn more about our speech and swallowing experts.
  • Tobacco and alcohol use are major risk factors for mouth cancer. MSK offers a tobacco cessation program that has helped thousands of people quit.