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The main causes of mouth cancer are:
- smoking or chewing tobacco
- drinking large amounts of alcohol.
Your risk of developing mouth cancer is higher if you do both.
Other things that may increase your risk of mouth cancer are:
- chewing betel quid (paan), gutkha or pan masala (even if it does not have tobacco in it)
- having medical problems that cause a weak immune system
- eating an unhealthy diet without enough fresh fruit and vegetables
- long-term ultraviolet light exposure (from sunlight, sunbeds or sunlamps), which increases the risk of lip cancer.
Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get mouth cancer. Also, having no risk factors does not mean you will not develop mouth cancer.
You usually start by seeing your GP or dentist. They will examine your mouth closely. They will refer you to a specialist doctor if:
- they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer
- they are not sure what the problem is.
The specialist doctor will ask about your symptoms and general health. They will check your mouth using a small mirror and light.
If your only symptom is a lump in your neck, you may be referred to a hospital that has a neck lump clinic.
You may have some of the following tests:
The doctor collects samples (biopsies) of cells or tissue from the area that looks abnormal. A doctor who specialises in analysing cells (called a pathologist) looks at the sample under a microscope for cancer cells. Your doctor may take a biopsy while they are examining you with the nasendoscope. Or they might arrange for you to have a general anaesthetic to take the biopsy.
Ultrasound scan of the neck
Fine needle aspiration (FNA) of the lymph nodes
Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.
Further tests for mouth cancer
These tests may be used to help diagnose mouth cancer and to check whether it has spread.
The results of your tests helps your doctors find out more about the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.
A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.
Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.
We have general information about staging and grading of head and neck cancers. Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you more information.
A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.
Treatment for mouth cancer may include:
Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. It can be used on its own, but is often given in combination with chemotherapy. This is called chemoradiation
We have more information about
- how different treatments are used to treat mouth cancer
- what will happen before your treatment and how to prepare.
You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.
You have regular follow-up appointments after treatment. You may also have regular follow-up appointments with a speech and language therapist (SLT), dietitian, restorative dentist and dental hygienist.
If you have any problems or notice new symptoms between appointments, let your doctor know as soon as possible.
Sex life and fertility
Head and neck cancer and its treatment can sometimes affect your sex life. Your doctor or nurse can explain what to expect. There are often things that can help if you have problems.
If you are worried about this, it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment.
Some side effects that develop during treatment may take a long time to improve, or may sometimes become permanent. These are called long-term effects.
Other effects can develop months or even years after treatment has finished. These are known as late effects. We have more information about long-term and late effects of head and neck cancer treatment.
Well-being and recovery
Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.
Making small changes to the way you live such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.
It can be difficult to eat well after treatment for head and neck cancer, but your dietitian can help you.
Your feelings after mouth cancer treatment
For some people, it takes several months to recover from treatment. It can be hard to cope if treatment has changed your appearance, voice or how you eat and drink. It is common to feel overwhelmed by different feelings.
There are national support groups that you may find helpful:
Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:
Below is a sample of the sources used in our mouth cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists. Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. 2016. Available from: https://www.bahno.org.uk/_userfiles/pages/files/ukheadandcancerguidelines2016.pdf (accessed September 2018).
Kerewala C, Roques T et al. Oral cavity and lip cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016: 130 (Suppl 2): S83-S89, Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4873943/ (accessed September 2018)
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.
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