Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer

Expert oral, head, and neck cancer care focused on your needs.

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Cancer specialist examining a patient's neck checking for oral, head and neck cancers

What you need to know about oral cancers

Cancers happen when cells grow out of control. Oral cancer is fairly common and often cured if found and treated at an early stage. (This is when the cancer is small and hasn't spread.) A doctor or dentist often finds oral cancer in its early stages because the mouth is easy to examine. 

These cancers account for about 4 percent of all U.S. cancers. They are more common among men than women and in people over age 50.

Types of oral cancer

The most common form is called squamous cell carcinoma. These are cancers that develop in the squamous cells that line moist surfaces inside the head and neck — the mouth, nose and throat, for example.

Verrucous carcinoma is a rare type of squamous cell carcinoma. It's a low-grade or slow-growing type that rarely spreads to distant sites (metastasizes). It accounts for less than 1 in 50 oral cancers.

Other much less common types of oral cancer include salivary gland tumors, including adenoid cystic carcinoma and adenocarcinoma, and lymphoma.

What you need to know about head and neck cancers

While uncommon, cancers of the head and neck can affect some of our most important functions—eating, speaking, and breathing. Head and neck cancers usually begin in the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat, and voice box. They can also develop in the sinuses and nose, on the lips, in the salivary glands, and in the muscles or nerves of the head and neck.

Currently, men are twice as likely as women to develop head and neck cancers. These cancers are most often linked to tobacco use—80% of patients have a history of smoking. People who drink alcohol and use tobacco face even higher risk.

Symptoms of oral, head and neck cancer

Oral, head and neck cancer is often found because a person notices abnormal changes in their mouth or neck. Some common symptoms include:

  • A sore on your lip or in your mouth or nose that won’t heal
  • A lump or thickening on your lip, in your mouth, or in your throat
  • A white or red patch on your gums, tongue, or the lining of your mouth
  • Sore throat that doesn’t go away; trouble swallowing
  • Hoarse voice or other voice changes that don’t go away

Other symptoms include:

  • Abnormal bleeding, pain, or numbness in your mouth
  • A lump in the neck that doesn’t hurt
  • A feeling of something caught in your throat
  • Trouble or pain when moving your tongue, chewing, or swallowing
  • Blocked sinuses or nasal congestion that won’t clear; chronic sinus infections
  • Loose dentures or changes in the way they fit
  • Swelling around your jaw; trouble opening your mouth, speaking, or breathing
  • Loose or painful teeth
  • Pain in the ear, face, chin, neck, upper back, jaw, or upper teeth
  • Frequent headaches or pain around the nose, cheeks, or forehead
  • Frequent nosebleeds or ones that don’t stop
  • Weakness in the muscles of the face, jaw, and tongue
  • Double vision
  • Numbness in the face
  • Ringing in the ears or hearing problems
  • Swelling of the eyes, under the chin, or around the jaw
  • Bad breath even with good oral hygiene
  • Unexplained weight loss

Many of these symptoms may be caused by other health problems. But it's important to see your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer. Tell your doctor or dentist right away about any problems you have in your mouth or throat.

Oral, head and neck cancer experts

Legacy Cancer Institute, located in Portland, OR, ranks among the nation’s best cancer programs. We have a team of cancer specialists who work together to diagnose and develop a personalized treatment plan for you. Find the right provider and treatment close to home.

Legacy Cancer Institute is accredited as an integrated network cancer program by the American College of surgeons Commission on Cancer (CoC). Learn more about our quality cancer care.

Next steps after an oral, head or neck cancer diagnosis

Being told you have oral, head or neck cancer can be scary, and you may have many questions. It’s normal to feel afraid. Learning about the cancer and about your treatment options can help you feel less afraid.

At this point, you’ve likely had a physical exam and reviewed your health history with your provider. You may have also had a biopsy to confirm your diagnosis. Following a diagnosis of an oral, head or neck cancer, you may have more tests to help your doctor understand your cancer stage. 

Cancer staging involves identifying where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread and if it is affecting other parts of your body. Knowing the stage allows your doctor to develop your personalized treatment plan. 

Some of the tests your doctor may recommend are:

  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Ultrasound
  • Barium swallow
  • Panorex films
  • Chest X-ray
  • Bone scan

Customized treatment plans

Because each person and every cancer is different, your doctor uses your tests and exams to come up with an individual treatment plan. How long this takes depends on how complex your case is and your treatment goals. During this time, you build a relationship with your cancer doctors. You become a team for your care.

Open, honest communication can only benefit your relationship with your doctors. These tips can also help you get the most from this partnership:

  • Prepare in advance: Write down your questions ahead of your visits. A few examples of smart questions:
               - Why are we doing these tests?
               - Why do you think this treatment is right?
               - What side effects might this treatment cause?
  • Find trustworthy resources: If you’re looking to learn more, rely on this website or sources your team recommends, so you can make decisions based on good information.
  • Take a partner: Bringing a friend or family member to appointments can make you feel more confident and help you remember important details.

Treatment options

There are several ways to treat oral, head and neck cancer depending on the type and location of the tumor. Options may include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. People often receive a combination of treatments.

More support

You are not alone. Legacy offers support throughout your cancer journey, as well as care for your emotional, social and spiritual needs.

Nurse navigators
Legacy Cancer Healing Center 
Support groups and classes
Cancer rehabilitation 
Survivorship services