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Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

Last modified: 2014-02-06
Last downloaded: Monday, July 28, 2014

General Information About Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

Lip and oral cavity cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lips or mouth.

The oral cavity includes the following:

Anatomy of the oral cavity. The oral cavity includes the lips, hard palate (the bony front portion of the roof of the mouth), soft palate (the muscular back portion of the roof of the mouth), retromolar trigone (the area behind the wisdom teeth), front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva (gums), buccal mucosa (the inner lining of the lips and cheeks), and floor of the mouth under the tongue.

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).

Lip and oral cavity cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Tobacco and alcohol use can affect the risk of lip and oral cavity cancer.

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. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. 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).

Signs of lip and oral cavity cancer include a sore or lump on the lips or in the mouth.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by lip and oral cavity cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • 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.

Tests that examine the mouth and throat are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage lip and oral cavity cancer.

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 medical 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

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.


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Stages of Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer

After lip and oral cavity cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the lip and oral cavity or to other parts of the body.

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.)

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if lip cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually lip cancer cells. The disease is metastatic lip cancer, not lung cancer.

The following stages are used for lip and oral cavity cancer:

Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

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.

Stage I

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

Stage II

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.

Stage III

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

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.

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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.


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Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with lip and oral cavity cancer.

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.

Patients with lip and oral cavity cancer should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors who are expert in treating head and neck cancer.

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:

Two types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

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

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.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

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

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

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

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.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

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.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

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.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

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.


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Treatment Options by Stage

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. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. 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. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. 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. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. 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. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.


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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. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may be right for you. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.


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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:


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Changes to This Summary (02/06/2014)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.


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Back to TopSource: The National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq)