Cancer of the mouth


Cancer of the mouth
Cancer of the mouth
  • Mouth cancer, also called oral cancer, can affect any part of the mouth, including the gums, tongue, inside the cheeks, or lips.
  • Anyone can get mouth cancer, but the risk increases with age. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 66 and 70.
  • How serious it is depends on the type of mouth cancer, how big it is, if it has spread, and your general health.

Get your symptoms checked

It’s important to get any symptoms of mouth cancer checked as soon as possible. If cancer is found early, it may be more treatable.


Main symptoms of mouth cancer

Symptoms of mouth cancer can affect any part of your mouth including the gums, tongue, inside the cheeks, or lips.

Symptoms can include:

  • a mouth ulcer in your mouth that lasts more than 3 weeks
  • a red or white patch inside your mouth
  • a lump inside your mouth or on your lip
  • pain inside your mouth
  • difficulty swallowing
  • difficulty speaking or a hoarse (croaky) voice
  • a lump in your neck or throat
  • losing weight without trying

See a GP if:

  • you have an mouth ulcer that has lasted more than 3 weeks
  • you have a lump in your mouth, on your lip, on your neck or in your throat
  • you have a red or white patch in your mouth
  • you have pain in your mouth that's not going away
  • you're having difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • you have a hoarse (croaky) voice that does not go away

A dentist can also help with ulcers, lumps, patches or pain in your mouth.


These symptoms are very common and can be caused by other conditions.

Having the symptoms does not definitely mean you have mouth cancer, but it's important to get checked by a GP or dentist.

If your symptoms are caused by cancer, finding it early may mean it's easier to treat.

What happens at your dentist or GP appointment

Your dentist or GP will usually ask questions about your symptoms, lifestyle and any other medical conditions you have.

They will usually look and feel inside your mouth. They may also feel your neck and jaw.

You can ask for someone else to be in the room with you while the dentist or GP examines you.

Referral to a specialist

The dentist or GP may refer you for more tests or to see a specialist in hospital if they think you have symptoms that need to be investigated.

This may be an urgent referral, usually within 2 weeks, if you have certain symptoms. This does not definitely mean you have cancer.


Who is more likely to get mouth cancer

It's not always clear what causes mouth cancer.

You may be more likely to get mouth cancer if:

  • you smoke or chew tobacco, betel nut or paan
  • you drink a lot of alcohol
  • you have leukoplakia
  • you’ve been exposed to a lot of sunlight or sunbeds, which can cause skin cancer affecting the lips
  • you've had cancer before
  • you have a weakened immune system, for example, you have HIV or AIDS, or take immunosuppressant medicine

Mouth cancer has also been linked to having changes in your genes and having some types of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in your mouth.

How to lower your risk of mouth cancer

You cannot always prevent mouth cancer, but there are things you can do to lower your chance of getting it.


  • eat a healthy diet, including 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day
  • exercise regularly
  • try to cut down on alcohol and avoid drinking more than 14 units a week
  • try to quit smoking
  • try to quit chewing tobacco, betel nut or paan



Main tests for mouth cancer

If a dentist or GP refers you to a specialist because they think you could have mouth cancer, you’ll have tests to check for cancer.

The main tests for mouth cancer are usually:

  • removing a small sample of cells from the affected area of your mouth for testing (a biopsy)
  • an X-ray, ultrasound scan, CT scan or MRI scan

Getting your results

You’ll usually get the results of tests for mouth cancer within 2 weeks.

Try not to worry if your results are taking longer than you expect. It does not mean anything is wrong.

You can call the hospital or your GP if you're worried and they may be able to update you if your results are ready.

A specialist will explain what the results mean and what will happen next. You may want to bring someone with you for support.

If you're told you have mouth cancer

Being told you have mouth cancer can feel overwhelming. You may be feeling anxious about what will happen.

A group of specialists will look after you throughout your diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

This team will include a clinical nurse specialist who will be your main point of contact during and after your treatment. You can ask them any questions you may have.

Get support

Macmillan Cancer Support has a free helpline that's open every day from 8am to 8pm.

They're there to listen if you have anything you want to talk about.

Call 0808 808 00 00.

Next steps

If you've been told you have mouth cancer, you may need more tests which can include:

  • having a small sample of your lymph glands removed for testing (a biopsy)
  • a PET scan
  • blood tests

The results of these tests can show how far the cancer has spread, and if the cancer has been caused by certain changes in your genes.

This will help your specialist team decide what treatment you need.


Main treatments for mouth cancer

The treatment you'll have for mouth cancer depends on:

  • the size of the cancer
  • where the cancer is
  • if it has spread to other parts of your body
  • if the cancer has certain genetic changes
  • your age and general health

You may be offered a combination of treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and targeted medicines and immunotherapy.

Your specialist treatment team will:

  • explain the treatments, the benefits and side effects
  • work with you to make a treatment plan that’s best for you
  • help you to manage the side effects of treatment

If you have any questions or worries, you can talk to your specialist team.


Surgery is usually needed to remove mouth cancer. You may also need to have some of the lymph glands in your neck removed.

Sometimes an area around the cancer may also need to be removed to stop the cancer coming back. This may include part of your tongue or jaw.

If a large part of your jaw or tongue is removed, you may need surgery to rebuild the area using skin or bone from another part of your body (reconstructive surgery).


Radiotherapy uses radiation to kill cancer cells.

Radiotherapy is often used to treat mouth cancer. It may be the only treatment you need if your cancer is found early.

You may also have radiotherapy:

  • after surgery
  • if you’re unable to have surgery
  • to ease the symptoms if the cancer has spread


Chemotherapy is medicine that kills cancer cells. It is sometimes given with radiotherapy for mouth cancer.

You may have chemotherapy for mouth cancer:

  • before or after surgery
  • if your mouth cancer has come back
  • if cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Targeted medicines and immunotherapy

Targeted medicines kill cancer cells. Immunotherapy is where medicines are used to help your immune system kill cancer cells.

Targeted medicines or immunotherapy are sometimes used to treat mouth cancer that:

  • has spread to other parts of the body
  • has come back after treatment

What happens if you’ve been told your cancer cannot be cured

If you’ve been diagnosed with advanced mouth cancer, it may be hard to treat and not possible to cure.

The aim of treatment will be to slow down the growth and spread of the cancer, to help with the symptoms, and help you live longer.

Finding out the cancer cannot be cured can be very hard news to take in.

You’ll be referred to a team of doctors and nurses called a symptom control team or palliative care team.

They will help you to manage your symptoms and make you feel more comfortable.

The palliative care team can also help you and your loved ones get any other support you need.

Help and Support

Where to find help and support

If you have mouth cancer, your specialist treatment team will be there to support you throughout your treatment. They will also be able to give you information about local support services you may find helpful.

There are also national cancer charities that can offer support and information about mouth cancer.

Mouth Cancer Foundation

Information and support for anyone affected by mouth cancer


Information and support for anyone affected by cancer.

Cancer Research UK

Information and support for anyone affected by cancer.

Marie Curie

Care and support for anyone affected by terminal illness

The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS UK NHS website
Last Updated: 31/10/2023 15:53:10