What is Mouth Cancer?

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, describes one of the areas where head and neck cancers can occur and includes various kinds of tumours affecting the lips, salivary glands, tongue, gums, palate and inside of the cheeks. Cancers further back around the root of the tongue, soft palate, tonsils and the upper part of the throat (the pharynx) are more properly called pharyngeal cancer. Although there are several different cancers that can occur in these areas the most common is called squamous cell carcinoma (scc) which arises from the surface cells of the skin.

Throat cancer is not a precise term but is usually understood to mean cancers in the pharynx (the hollow tube between the nose and windpipe) and the larynx (voice box) and upper part of the oesophagus (food tube leading to stomach).

Cancer affecting the nasal cavity and paranasal air sinuses is also included in head and neck cancers.  Mouth and throat cancer can grow and spread very quickly so it is essential that you see a GP or dentist as soon as possible if you think you may have any of the signs and symptoms.

How Common is Mouth Cancer?

Here are the latest published statistics.

New Cases of Head and Neck Cancer 2014 11,4049
Deaths 2014 2386
Proportion of All Cancer Cases 3%


Change in incidence of head and neck cancer since 1990’s; up 30% and projected to rise by another 33% by 2035

Source: Cancer Research UK December 2017


While most major cancers reduce in incidence year by year head and neck cancer continues to show an alarming increase.

  • In the UK 38,000 people are living with a diagnosis of head and neck cancer.
  • Around 60,000 people in the UK will be diagnosed with mouth cancer over the next decade.

Mouth Cancer – The Facts

  • Oral and pharyngeal cancer is the sixth most common malignancy reported worldwide and one with high mortality ratios among all malignancies.

  • The global number of new cases was estimated at 405,318 about two-thirds of them arising in developing countries.

  • Highest rates are reported in South Asian countries such as India and Sri Lanka.

  • The Indian sub-continent accounts for one-third of the world burden.

  • The incidence and mortality from oral cancer is rising in several regions of Europe, Taiwan, Japan and Australia.

  • Every year in Europe, around 100,800 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancer and almost 40,000 die from the disease.

  • In the USA alone, 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer each year. About 90 percent of head and neck cancers are of the squamous cell variety.

  • Although there have been significant improvements in chemotherapy and surgical techniques, the disease is often particularly challenging to treat since most patients present with advanced disease, have secondary tumours and suffer from other co-morbidities.

  • Unfortunately 5-year survival rate has not improved (50% overall) for the last few decades except in specialized cancer centres.

  • These ‘Mouth Cancers’ have a higher proportion of deaths per number of cases than breast cancer, cervical cancer or skin melanoma.

  • The mortality rate is just over 50%, despite treatment, with 2,718 deaths occurring in 2005.

  • Mouth cancer kills one person every 3 hours in the UK because of late detection.

  • Age is another factor, with people over the age of 40 more likely to be diagnosed, though more young people are now being affected than previously.

  • 25% of mouth cancer cases have no associated significant risk factors.

  • Mouth cancer is twice as common in men than in women, though an increasing number of women are being doagnosed with the disease.

    • More people in the UK die each year of mouth cancer than of cervical and testicular cancer combined
    • Mouth cancer causes more deaths in the UK each year than road traffic accidents
    • Men are more than twice as likely than women to develop the disease
    • Most people with mouth cancer over the age of 40
    • The majority  of cases diagnosed are in smokers but up to 25% of cases are in people with no identifiable risk factors

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