What do we mean by 'Mouth Cancer'? Mouth Cancer is a colloquial term for Oral Cancer. Oral cancer includes cancers of the tongue, gum and jaw bone (sarcoma). If these are not the cancer type you're looking for, please explore the information about other types of Head and Neck Cancers.

All the information in this section is available in a PDF.
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1. What is Mouth Cancer?

What is Mouth Cancer?

Most Mouth Cancers start in the cells that line the mouth (the mucosa; called squamous cell carcinomas, the same as the common types of skin cancer). Mouth Cancers can also start to grow in minor salivary glands, bone, blood vessels, nerves, and other structures. These cancers are rare and only make up less than 5% of Mouth Cancers. 

Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal, grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. These cells build up to form a mass (or lump). 

Watch this 3D video explainer about Mouth Cancer: 

2. What is the oral cavity?

The mouth (or oral cavity) is the area between the lips and top of the throat (or oropharynx). Cancer can affect different parts of the mouth, including: 

  • front of the tongue

  • bottom of the mouth (under the tongue and above the lower jaw)

  • jaw bones 

  • upper and lower gums (gingiva)

  • lining of the lips and cheeks (buccal mucosa)

  • front of the top of the mouth (hard palate)

  • behind wisdom teeth ( retromolar trigone).

Although the lips are part of the mouth, cancers affecting the lip are more similar to skin cancer.

3. What does the oral cavity do?

The mouth (oral cavity) is important in everyday activities such as tasting, chewing and swallowing food, and talking. The tongue mainly helps with eating and making foods soft enough to swallow. It also helps talking.

If the tongue cannot move properly, either because of loss of muscle from surgery, or getting stuck from scarring and limiting movement, then talking and the ability to eat can be affected greatly.

The jaw bones help keep the shape of the face and gives a strong bony frame to allow room for chewing.

Diagram of the mouth and surrounding areas: 

4. What causes Mouth Cancer?

Doctors often can’t explain why a person gets cancer. But we do know what makes some cancers more likely.

The two main causes of Mouth Cancer are: 

  • smoking (cigarettes, cigars or pipes) or using ‘smokeless’ tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco) If a person smokes or has smoked in the past, they have a higher risk of getting Mouth Cancer than someone who has never smoked. 

  • drinking alcohol — If a person drinks a lot of alcohol over many years, they have a higher risk of getting Mouth Cancer, especially combined with smoking.

​Three out of four people with Mouth Cancer have been a smoker or consumed alcohol regularly for a number of years. 

Get information about quitting smoking and reducing how much alcohol you drink

Other factors that may increase the risk of Mouth Cancer are: 

  • being male – in Australia men are more likely than women to get Mouth Cancer

  • age – most Mouth Cancers (about 90%) are in people aged over 50 years

  • previous diagnosis of Mouth Cancer

  • using mouthwash containing alcohol, over a number of years

  • using betel nut (betel quid) – Mouth Cancers are more common in parts of Asia where betel quid is chewed

  • lichen planus – an inflammatory condition that causes white and red patches in the mouth (although less than 1 in 100 people with this condition develop Mouth Cancer)

  • a poor diet low in fruit and vegetables

  • broken and sharp teeth rubbing on the tongue and cheek

All the information in this section is available in a PDF.
Download it here.
1. Introduction to Mouth Cancer
  • What is Mouth Cancer?
  • What is the oral cavity
  • What does the oral cavity do?
  • What causes Mouth Cancer?
2. Symptoms, signs and tests of Mouth Cancer
  • Signs and Symptoms of Mouth Cancer
  • Tests for Mouth Cancer
3. Treatment for Mouth Cancer
  • Treatment options for Mouth Cancer
  • Surgery 
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  1. Head and Neck Cancer Australia Resources 
  2. External Links to other Head and Neck Cancer Resources