Treatment Options for Oral Cancer (Mouth Cancer)


Oral cancer is a serious illness. That’s why it’s crucial to notice its signs and symptoms as early as possible. Learn about what you need to look out for, and what treatment you can get if you have oral cancer.


What Is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer (also known as mouth cancer) is when the cancer develops in the tissue of your mouth or your gums.

Around 53,000 people get diagnosed with mouth cancer every year in the United States. It’s especially prevalent in people aged 40 and above. To protect yourself, here is everything you need to know about the symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment of oral cancer.

Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cancer

You play the biggest role in diagnosing cancer in its earliest stages. Some ways to be on guard against oral cancer are getting screened annually, keeping up with regular dental examinations, taking note of changes in your mouth that could be signs of oral cancer.

The Oral Cancer Foundation advises that you contact your doctor or dentist immediately if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • An unusual lump or thickening in the cheek
  • A lesion or mouth sore that bleeds easily and does not heal within 2 weeks
  • A sore throat or feeling that something is in the back of the throat
  • A white and/or red patch found on the lining of the mouth, gums, or tongue
  • Difficulty swallowing, chewing, or moving jaw or tongue
  • Numbness around the mouth or tongue
  • Chronic hoarseness
  • Swelling of the jaw

Although these symptoms may be a result of a milder issue, it never hurts to be too careful when you’re facing the possibility of cancer. Be especially aware of these symptoms if you use tobacco, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, or have been diagnosed with HPV, as these put you at greater risk of developing oral cancer.

Diagnosis Before Oral Cancer Treatment

Getting an early diagnosis means that oral cancer treatment will be faster and more effective. These are the most common ways oral cancer gets diagnosed.


Dental examinations are a good start, but a dentist can’t diagnose oral cancer. Only a medical professional can. 

However, dental examinations are incredibly useful when it comes to noticing the signs of oral cancer. Dentists receive special training to understand your symptoms and refer you to the appropriate medical screening.

The doctor will provide a physical examination. They’ll search your mouth for abnormalities or swelling. The doctor will also feel the back of your throat, your lymph nodes, inside your cheeks and lips, and the floor of your mouth.

An indirect examination of the nasopharynx and larynx will take place through an oral screening. Your doctor will look for signs such as ulcerations, lumps and bumps, red or white sores, and loose teeth.

Seeing a Specialist

When your doctor or dentist is unable to find the cause of your symptoms, they may refer you to a specialist. Doctors who specialize in dealing with the ear, nose, or throat may need to examine the state and severity of your symptoms.

If they find an abnormal area, the next step is a biopsy.


A biopsy is the only way to be sure that the abnormal area in your mouth is cancerous. There are a few kinds of biopsies that may be performed during diagnosis of oral cancer.

  • Brush Biopsy: A brush biopsy is at a dental office where they collect a sampling of cells for a preliminary examination. The dentist will aggressively rub a brush against the concerning area. If the cells show a positive sign of cancer, then the next step is a conventional incisional biopsy.
  • Incisional Biopsy: During an incisional biopsy, a doctor will remove a small piece of tissue to look for cancer cells. The sample is often taken from part or all of a lesion depending on the size. Then, a pathologist examines the tissue for abnormal or malignant cells under a microscope.
  • Fine needle biopsy (FNB): A fine needle biopsy (or fine needle aspiration cytology) is common when dealing with a significant mass, such as an enlarged lymph node. During FNB they take a sample of suspect tissue with a syringe. A doctor may draw out cells from several locations on the mass to ensure that the sample is thorough.
  • Punch Biopsy: In this type of incisional biopsy, the doctor takes a sample with a very small circular blade. They press down with this to cut a round border on the suspect area. Then, the doctor pulls on the center of the area, snipping the surrounding tissue free with a scalpel or small tissue scissors. Thus, they get a perfect plug of cells from the sample area.

Determining the Stages of Oral Cancer for Treatment

Examination and a biopsy can determine if your symptoms are a sign of oral cancer. If the results come back positive, the next step is to find out what the extent of the disease is. Knowing all this information is crucial to find the best oral cancer treatment for you.

To get you closer to treatment, your doctor may order that you undergo one or more of the following procedures:

  • CT Scan: A CT scan finds tumors in your mouth, throat, neck, lungs, or elsewhere in the body. You may receive an injection of dye so that the x-ray machine linked to a computer can take a series of detailed pictures of the suspect areas.
  • MRI: An MRI test can show if the oral cancer has spread to other parts of your body. It uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer to take detailed pictures of your body for doctors to examine.
  • X-rays: An oral x-ray can tell doctors if the cancer has spread to the jaw. Images of your chest and lungs with a regular X-ray can also show the spread of the disease.
  • PET Scan: During a PET scan, you’ll receive a small amount of radioactive sugar that gives off signals for the scanner to pick up. The PET scanner then uses those signals to make a picture of the area where the sugar is being taken up. The cancer cells will show up brighter because they take in sugar faster than normal cells. It will also show if the cancer has spread throughout the body.
  • Endoscopy: During this test, the doctor will use a thin, lighted tube to check your windpipe, lungs, and throat. You’ll receive local anesthesia, general anesthesia, or a mild sedative to prevent discomfort during the procedure.

Stages of Oral Cancer

Determining the stage of oral cancer is crucial for choosing the most effective treatment. To describe the stage of cancer, doctors consider the size of the tumor(s) and if/how the cancer has spread to other tissue.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology defines oral cancer by stages from 0 through 4.

  • Stage 0 oral cancer: Stage 0 cancers are often highly curable, and tumors can usually be removed with surgery. In this case, the cancer is still in its original location and has not spread to nearby tissue.
  • Stage I oral cancer: This is an early stage cancer that has not spread to the lymph nodes or other tissues. The small cancer or tumor has not grown deeply into the nearby tissue.
  • Stages II and III oral cancer: This stage often indicates a deeper growth of larger cancers or tumors into nearby tissue. Though the cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of the body, it may have spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV oral cancer: This is an advanced stage of cancer. This means that cancer has spread to organs and other parts of the body.

Other Factors to Consider Before Oral Cancer Treatment

Your doctor may use other information to determine the best available treatment and chance of recovery on top of the staging system.

  • Grade: The grade is a description of how much the cancer cells look like healthy, cancerous cells under a microscope. Low-grade cancer cells look more like healthy cells, whereas high-grade cells look more or less like healthy cells. 
  • Tumor Genetics: The genes in cancer cells can sometimes help predict how the cancer will spread and what treatments will help.
  • Tumor Markers: Tumor markers are substances found in significantly high levels in the blood, urine, or body tissues of people with cancer. This helps to determine the best treatment based on the tumor markers that indicate the type of cancer at hand.

Oral Cancer Treatment Options

After determining the stage and the spread of the cancer, the doctor can accurately suggest treatment options. They’ll take all the test results into their calculations, and they’ll recommend to you the path with the greatest chance of success.

Usually, doctors will recommend one of these 5 oral cancer treatment options:

1. Oral Cancer Surgery

If the cancer is still fairly localized, surgery may successfully remove all the affected cells. This is a serious procedure that involves general anesthesia, cutting the cancerous growth out, and reconstructing the mouth.

After oral cancer surgery, you may not be able to eat, drink, or speak until you heal. 

2. Radiation Therapy for Oral Cancer

Patients who underwent oral cancer surgery often receive radiation therapy as well. Radiation, such as X-rays and protons can kill cancer cells. 

There are two kinds of radiation therapy for oral cancer. One is when they direct the radiation at you from a machine. This is called an external beam. Alternatively, the doctor can also place radioactive seeds and wires to target the cancerous area more closely. This is brachytherapy.

3. Chemotherapy for Oral Cancer

Chemotherapy is about killing cancer cells with chemicals. Often, patients who undergo radiation therapy also receive chemotherapy. These two oral cancer treatments combined are even more effective.

Unfortunately, chemotherapy often has a lot of side effects. Hair loss, fatigue, and weakness are very common.

4. Immunotherapy for Oral Cancer

For patients with advanced oral cancer where the body doesn’t respond to treatments, immunotherapy may work. During this process, the doctors use the patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer cells.

Normally, cancer cells aren’t attacked by your immune system, because they produce a protein that blinds your defenses. Immunotherapy aims to reverse the process, and make the immune system realize that there are harmful cells in your body.

5. Targeted Drug Therapy

One of the oral cancer treatment options occasionally available are specific drugs that target the cancer cells. Sometimes, these are used in combination with the above treatments.

Cetuximab (Erbitux) is an oral cancer medicine that often serves this purpose. It inhibits a protein that’s prevalent in certain types of oral cancer cells.

However, the side effects of oral cancer targeted drugs are considerable. Skin rash, itching, diarrhea and a headache are fairly common.

Save Money on Your Oral Cancer Examination

Before you can get treatment for oral cancer, you need to get a diagnosis. And a diagnosis for oral cancer starts at the dentist. Pay attention to your symptoms and turn to the dentist for an oral examination as soon as you discover something suspicious.

And don’t worry about the cost of the dentist. With a Carefree Dental Card, you can save a lot of money on your oral exams at participating dentists. Receive discounts of 15-50%* off per visit in most instances when you enroll.

Get started on the treatment you need by signing up for a Carefree Dental Card today!


The Carefree Dental blog is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The text and pictures within the content are intended for information purposes only. Readers should consult with a licensed dentist or healthcare professional before seeking treatment.

The Carefree Dental Card is not insurance and Carefree Dental is not an insurance provider.

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