Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a core part of our mission is to educate patients and the community about cancer. The following summary is trusted information from the NCI.

General Information About Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

The oral cavity includes the following:

  • The front two thirds of the tongue.
  • The gingiva (gums).
  • The buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks).
  • The floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue.
  • The hard palate (the roof of the mouth).
  • The retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth).

Most lip and oral cavity cancers start in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells that line the lips and oral cavity. These are called squamous cell carcinomas. Cancer cells may spread into deeper tissue as the cancer grows. Squamous cell carcinoma usually develops in areas of leukoplakia (white patches of cells that do not rub off).

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for lip and oral cavity cancer include the following:

  • Using tobacco products.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • Being exposed to natural sunlight or artificial sunlight (such as from tanning beds) over long periods of time.
  • Being male.
  • Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV).

These and other symptoms may be caused by lip and oral cavity cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal.
  • A lump or thickening on the lips or gums or in the mouth.
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsils, or lining of the mouth.
  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the lip or mouth.
  • Change in voice.
  • Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit well.
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw.
  • Swelling of jaw.
  • Sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat.

Lip and oral cavity cancer may not have any symptoms and is sometimes found during a regular dental exam.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam of the lips and oral cavity: An exam to check the lips and oral cavity for abnormal areas. The doctor or dentist will feel the entire inside of the mouth with a gloved finger and examine the oral cavity with a small long-handled mirror and lights. This will include checking the insides of the cheeks and lips; the gums; the roof and floor of the mouth; and the top, bottom, and sides of the tongue. The neck will be felt for swollen lymph nodes. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and medical and dental treatments will also be taken.
  • Endoscopy: A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope is inserted through an incision (cut) in the skin or opening in the body, such as the mouth. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • X-rays of the head, neck, and chest: An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist. If leukoplakia is found, cells taken from the patches are also checked under the microscope for signs of cancer.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • Exfoliative cytology: A procedure to collect cells from the lip or oral cavity. A piece of cotton, a brush, or a small wooden stick is used to gently scrape cells from the lips, tongue, mouth, or throat. The cells are viewed under a microscope to find out if they are abnormal.
  • Barium swallow: A series of x-rays of the esophagus and stomach. The patient drinks a liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound). The liquid coats the esophagus and x-rays are taken. This procedure is also called an upper GI series.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radionuclide glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.

Prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • Where the tumor is in the lip or oral cavity.
  • Whether the cancer has spread to blood vessels.

For patients who smoke, the chance of recovery is better if they stop smoking before beginning radiation therapy.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • The size of the tumor and where it is in the lip or oral cavity.
  • Whether the patient's appearance and ability to talk and eat can stay the same.
  • The patient's age and general health.

Patients who have had lip and oral cavity cancer have an increased risk of developing a second cancer in the head or neck. Frequent and careful follow-up is important. Clinical trials are studying the use of retinoid drugs to reduce the risk of a second head and neck cancer. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stages of Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the lip and oral cavity or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The results of the tests used to diagnose lip and oral cavity cancer are also used to stage the disease. (See the General Information section.)

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the lining of the lips and oral cavity. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.

Pea, peanut, walnut, and lime show tumor sizes.

In stage I, cancer has formed and the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller. Cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.

In stage II, the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters, and cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes.

In stage III, the tumor:

  • may be any size and has spread to one lymph node that is 3 centimeters or smaller, on the same side of the neck as the tumor; or
  • is larger than 4 centimeters.

Stage IV is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC.

  • In stage IVA, the tumor:
    • has spread through tissue in the lip or oral cavity into nearby tissue and/or bone (jaw, tongue, floor of mouth, maxillary sinus, or skin on the chin or nose); cancer may have spread to one lymph node that is 3 centimeters or smaller, on the same side of the neck as the tumor; or
    • is any size or has spread through tissue in the lip or oral cavity into nearby tissue and/or bone (jaw, tongue, floor of mouth, maxillary sinus, or skin on the chin or nose), and cancer has spread:
      • to one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the tumor and the lymph node is larger than 3 centimeters but not larger than 6 centimeters; or
      • to more than one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the tumor and the lymph nodes are not larger than 6 centimeters; or
      • to lymph nodes on the opposite side of the neck as the tumor or on both sides of the neck, and the lymph nodes are not larger than 6 centimeters.
  • In stage IVB, the tumor:
    • may be any size and has spread to one or more lymph nodes that are larger than 6 centimeters; or
    • has spread further into the muscles or bones in the oral cavity, or to the base of the skull and/or the carotid artery. Cancer may have spread to one or more lymph nodes anywhere in the neck.
  • In stage IVC, the tumor has spread beyond the lip or oral cavity to distant parts of the body, such as the lungs. The tumor may be any size and may have spread to the lymph nodes.

Recurrent Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

Recurrent lip and oral cavity cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the lip or mouth or in other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

Different types of treatment are available for patients with lip and oral cavity cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Treatment will be overseen by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating people with cancer. Because the lips and oral cavity are important for breathing, eating, and talking, patients may need special help adjusting to the side effects of the cancer and its treatment. The medical oncologist may refer the patient to other health professionals with special training in the treatment of patients with head and neck cancer. These include the following:

Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment for all stages of lip and oral cavity cancer. Surgery may include the following:

  • Wide local excision: Removal of the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it. If cancer has spread into bone, surgery may include removal of the involved bone tissue.
  • Neck dissection: Removal of lymph nodes and other tissues in the neck. This is done when cancer may have spread from the lip and oral cavity.
  • Plastic surgery: An operation that restores or improves the appearance of parts of the body. Dental implants, a skin graft, or other plastic surgery may be needed to repair parts of the mouth, throat, or neck after removal of large tumors.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

For patients who smoke, radiation therapy works better when smoking is stopped before beginning treatment. It is also important for patients to have a dental exam before radiation therapy begins, so that existing problems can be treated.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Hyperfractionated radiation therapy is radiation treatment in which the total dose of radiation is divided into small doses and the treatments are given more than once a day.

Hyperthermia therapy is a treatment in which body tissue is heated above normal temperature to damage and kill cancer cells or to make cancer cells more sensitive to the effects of radiation and certain anticancer drugs.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment Options by Stage

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Stage I Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

Treatment of stage I lip and oral cavity cancer depends on where cancer is found in the lip and oral cavity.

Lip

If cancer is in the lip, treatment may include the following:

Front of the tongue

If cancer is in the front of the tongue, treatment may include the following:

Buccal mucosa

If cancer is in the buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks), treatment may include the following:

Floor of the mouth

If cancer is in the floor (bottom) of the mouth, treatment may include the following:

Lower gingiva

If cancer is in the lower gingiva (gums), treatment may include the following:

Retromolar trigone

If cancer is in the retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth), treatment may include the following:

Upper gingiva or hard palate

If cancer is in the upper gingiva (gums) or the hard palate (the roof of the mouth), treatment is usually surgery (wide local excision) with or without radiation therapy.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I lip and oral cavity cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage II Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

Treatment of stage II lip and oral cavity cancer depends on where cancer is found in the lip and oral cavity.

Lip

If cancer is in the lip, treatment may include the following:

Front of the tongue

If cancer is in the front of the tongue, treatment may include the following:

Buccal mucosa

If cancer is in the buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks), treatment may include the following:

Floor of the mouth

If cancer is in the floor (bottom) of the mouth, treatment may include the following:

Lower gingiva

If cancer is in the lower gingiva (gums), treatment may include the following:

Retromolar trigone

If cancer is in the retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth), treatment may include the following:

Upper gingiva or hard palate

If cancer is in the upper gingiva (gums) or the hard palate (the roof of the mouth), treatment may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II lip and oral cavity cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage III Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

Treatment of stage III lip and oral cavity cancer depends on where cancer is found in the lip and oral cavity.

Lip

If cancer is in the lip, treatment may include the following:

Front of the tongue

If cancer is in the front of the tongue, treatment may include the following:

Buccal mucosa

If cancer is in the buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks), treatment may include the following:

Floor of the mouth

If cancer is in the floor (bottom) of the mouth, treatment may include the following:

Lower gingiva

If cancer is in the lower gingiva (gums), treatment may include the following:

Retromolar trigone

If cancer is in the retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth), treatment may include the following:

Upper gingiva

If cancer is in the upper gingiva (gums), treatment may include the following:

Hard palate

If cancer is in the hard palate (the roof of the mouth), treatment may include the following:

Lymph nodes

For cancer that may have spread to lymph nodes, treatment may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III lip and oral cavity cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage IV Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

Treatment of stage IV lip and oral cavity cancer depends on where cancer is found in the lip and oral cavity.

Lip

If cancer is in the lip, treatment may include the following:

Front of the tongue

If cancer is in the front of the tongue, treatment may include the following:

Buccal mucosa

If cancer is in the buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks), treatment may include the following:

Floor of the mouth

If cancer is in the floor (bottom) of the mouth, treatment may include the following:

Lower gingiva

If cancer is in the lower gingiva (gums), treatment may include the following:

Retromolar trigone

If cancer is in the retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth), treatment may include the following:

Upper gingiva or hard palate

If cancer is in the upper gingiva (gums) or hard palate (the roof of the mouth), treatment may include the following:

Lymph nodes

For cancer that may have spread to lymph nodes, treatment may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV lip and oral cavity cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Treatment Options for Recurrent Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

Treatment of recurrent lip and oral cavity cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent lip and oral cavity cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

To Learn More About Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about lip and oral cavity cancer, see the following:

For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:



Cancer Care Services

Clinical Trials