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Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is cancer of any of the parts of the mouth (sometimes referred to as the oral cavity and oropharynx). Oral cancer can occur in the tongue, lips, gums, hard palate (the front part of the roof of the mouth), soft palate (the back part of the roof) and the oropharynx (a part of the throat behind the mouth), along with other areas of the mouth.

Also known as mouth cancer, oral cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

The following are the more common types of oral cancer:

  • Oropharyngeal cancer: occurs in the oropharynx, which includes the base of the tongue, tonsils and soft palate (back of the mouth); oropharyngeal cancer can also be considered a type of throat cancer
  • Oral cavity cancer: includes tongue cancer, lip cancer, tonsil cancer, gum cancer and cheek cancer

Oral cancer symptoms

  • A white patch in your mouth that does not wipe off (known as leukoplakia)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or moving the tongue
  • A persistent sore throat
  • A lump, sore or thickening in the throat, lips or mouth
  • Ear pain
  • A change in voice

Oral cancer risk factors

  • Smoking or other tobacco use
  • Alcohol use
  • Combined tobacco and alcohol use (together these increase the chance of developing oral cancer more than either alone)
  • Having human papillomavirus (HPV); a specific form of HPV — HPV 16 — can increase the risk for tonsil cancer or tongue base cancer
  • Sun exposure (particularly for lip cancer)

How can I get help for oral cancer?

If you notice any of the above symptoms, visit your primary care doctor or dentist. If your doctor or dentist suspects you have oral cancer, he or she may refer you to a head and neck cancer specialist for further testing.

Care for oral cancer at Rush


  • Biopsy: A head and neck cancer specialist will likely take a biopsy (a sample of your tissue) to determine whether you have oral cancer.

Developing a plan

Because oral cancers can affect your ability to eat and talk, it is important to seek care from a team of specialists like those found at the head and neck cancer program at Rush. These specialists include medical oncologists; ear, nose and throat doctors; radiation oncologists; rehabilitation therapists and reconstructive surgeons.

Your treatment will depend on several factors, including the following:

  • Which type of oral cancer you have
  • The stage of the cancer
  • Your general health and age
  • Keeping your ability to eat and talk as close to normal as possible

Your doctors will work with you to determine the best treatment course for your type of cancer. This may include some of the following, whether alone or in combination.

Tumor removal surgery

  • Preserving function: A key concern when treating oral cancer is preserving your ability to eat and talk. Your doctors may recommend the surgical removal of the cancer and some surrounding tissue.
  • Minimally invasive surgery: Some oral cancers can be removed using minimally invasive techniques. Minimally invasive techniques typically result in less pain and shorter recovery times. These techniques include the following:
    • Transoral robotic surgery: With robotic surgery, head and neck surgeons use very small tools attached to a robotic arm to remove hard-to-reach tumors through the mouth.
    • Endoscopic approaches: Surgeons use a small, flexible tube (an endoscope) to see inside the body and remove tumors without making large incisions.

Radiation therapy

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy can be used to treat oropharyngeal cancer, either with chemotherapy for larger, more advanced tumors, or after surgery. This form of radiation therapy uses 3-D CT images to determine the tumor’s shape, and then focus high doses of radiation on the tumor.


Chemotherapy may be used to shrink the tumor in the following ways:

  • In combination with radiation therapy
  • For patients with metastatic disease


  • Following surgery to remove your tumor, you may need reconstructive surgery to restore function in areas where the tumor was removed.
  • Facial reconstruction surgery is performed by ear nose and throat or plastic surgeons specially trained in reconstructive techniques for the tongue, jaw, face, eyes, sinuses and throat.  Using advanced microvascular techniques, these surgeons can use tissue from other parts of your body to recreate parts of your lips and mouth.


Rehabilitation is an important part of oral cancer care. This is because the tumor itself or the treatment used to cure it can affect a person’s ability to talk, swallow or eat. In these cases, you may be referred for one or more of the following:

Why choose Rush for oral cancer care

  • Team-based approach: Head and neck specialists at Rush meet regularly to discuss patient cases in order to provide team assessment and evidence-based care for oral cancer. This team care focuses on creating individualized plans that target the tumor while maintaining your quality of life.
  • Surgical expertise: Head and neck cancer surgeons at Rush have experience with the latest techniques and perform a high volume of procedures. This gives them the experience and expertise needed to determine which surgeries or other treatments will be most effective for each patient’s needs — whether the patient has newly diagnosed or recurrent cancer. 
  • Advanced radiation capabilities: Radiation therapists at Rush have extensive experience and access to advanced radiation technologies. They are able to conform radiation beams to tumors with great precision. This precision means tumors can receive higher doses of radiation while healthy tissues surrounding the tumors receive less radiation.
  • Alternative therapies: Rush offers alternative, complementary therapies to help address the side effects of cancer care. These therapies include acupuncture, massage and yoga.
  • Quality care: The Rush University Cancer Center received the 2014 Outstanding Achievement Award from the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer. Rush has received this triennial award all four times since the award was created in 2004. The prestigious award recognizes programs that excel in providing quality cancer care.


Departments and programs that treat this condition