Diseases & Conditions


Mouth Cancer (Oral cancer)

Diseases & Conditions

What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, is a type of cancer that develops on the surface of the tongue, mouth, lips or gingiva.

Mouth cancer is the 15th most common cancer worldwide, with more than 300,000 new cases diagnosed in 2012 (2% of all cancer types).1

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the 2014 Saudi registry have reported that the incidence of mouth cancer is 1% in men and 0.9% in women.2 Some studies have shown that mouth cancer is regarded as the third most frequent malignancy in Saudi Arabia after lymphoma and leukemia.3

Who is at risk for developing mouth cancer?

Although anyone can get mouth cancer, there are some risk factors that increase the chance of developing the disease:4

  • Tobacco use and alcohol: Smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol are the main risk factors and pose a much greater risk together than using either substance alone. The considerable oral use of smokeless tobacco (Shammah) has been associated with the high development of oral cancer in Saudi Arabia.3 Whether a person smokes, inhales other’s smoke (secondhand smoking) or only chews tobacco, it will increase the risk of developing mouth cancer.
  • Human papillomavirus: Studies have shown that getting infected with the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus is linked to the development of mouth cancer.
  • Poor diet: Up 50% of all mouth cancer cases are partly due to poor diet. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables will help reducing the risk of getting this type of cancer.3
  • Age: Mouth cancer most often occurs in people over the age of 40.4
  • Sun exposure (Ultraviolet)


What are the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer?

Symptoms of mouth cancer include:4

  • A sore and irritated throat that does not heal
  • Irritation to the mouth or lips
  • Red or white patches in the mouth
  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficult or painful chewing and swallowing
  • Jaw and tongue pain
  • Numbness in the tongue or other areas of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw
  • Pain in one ear without hearing loss


Can mouth cancer be prevented?

Not all cases of mouth cancer can be prevented, but the risk of developing it can be greatly reduced by avoiding certain risk factors:5

  • Quitting smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Avoiding infection with human papillomavirus
  • Limiting exposure to ultraviolet light
  • Eating a healthy diet


How is mouth cancer diagnosed?

Mouth cancer is usually found because of signs or symptoms a person is having. A doctor or dentist may find mouth cancer during examinations that include:6

  • Medical history and physical exam: Examination of the lips, mouth and throat to look for any irritation, inflammation or abnormality
  • Biopsy: It consists of the removal of tissue from the mouth for testing. The biopsy will show any sign of abnormal cells.
  • Endoscopy: Using a scope to inspect the throat, the doctor will be able to find if the mouth cancer has spread beyond the mouth.
  • Imaging tests:
    • X-rays
    • Computerized Tomography (CT) scans
    • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan
    • Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan


How is mouth cancer treated?

There are three main treatment options for mouth cancer:7

  • Surgery: Surgery or physical removal of the tumor is the most important treatment for mouth cancer. In this procedure, the affected part with a margin of normal tissue is removed.
  • Chemotherapy is a form of treating mouth cancer that using medications to kill cancer cells. These drugs are either injected into a vein or taken as pills.
  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses drugs that target specifically cancer cells in the mouth.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses X-rays to kill mouth cancer cells and stop their growth.



  1. Ferlay, J., et al. "Cancer Incidence and Mortality Worldwide: IARC CancerBase No. 11 [Internet]. Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer. GLOBOCAN. 2013; 2012 v1. 0, htt p." globocan. iarc. fr. Accessed 30 (2015).
  2. Saudi Cancer Registry. Cancer Incidence Report in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh (KSA): Ministry of Health; 2010. Available from URL: http://www.chs.gov.sa/Ar/mediacenter/NewsLetter/2010%20Report%20(1).pdf
  3. Alsanosy, Rashad Mohammed. "Smokeless tobacco (shammah) in saudi arabia: a review of its pattern of use, prevalence, and potential role in oral cancer." Asian Pacific journal of cancer prevention: APJCP 15.16 (2013): 6477-6483.
  4. Risk Factors - Mouth Cancer Action Month (Mouth cancer action) http://www.mouthcancer.org/risk-factors/
  5. "Oral Cancer Causes and Symptoms & The Oral Cancer Exam." National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Web. 26 Nov. 2015. <http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/Topics/OralCancer/AfricanAmericanMen/Documents/FactSheet1.pdf>.
  6. "Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer." American Cancer Society. Web. 26 Nov. 2015. <http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003128-pdf.pdf>.
  7. Mouth cancer (Diagnosis). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mouth-cancer/diagnosis-treatment/diagnosis/dxc-20157243
  8. Mouth cancer (Mouth cancer). http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Cancer-of-the-mouth/Pages/Introduction.aspx