How is Oral Cancer Diagnosed?


If oral cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate for cases in the United States is 85%. It’s essential to seek a diagnosis if you have any lesions in your oral cavity which is not healed within two weeks.

A dentist or doctor can evaluate the signs and symptoms of oral cancer:

  • Oral cancer screening/exam - A doctor or dentist will take a look at your lips and the inside of your mouth. They’ll be on the lookout for sores, white and/or red patches, and areas of irritation that could be cancerous or precancerous.
  • Biopsy - Removal of abnormal tissue may be necessary. The tissue sample will be sent off to a lab and analyzed to detect the presence of cancerous cells or precancerous conditions.

There are different types of biopsies, including:

  • Incisional biopsy - Small pieces of the abnormal tissue/tumor are removed with a scalpel
  • Brush or scrape biopsy - A small spatula or brush is used to gently remove tissue to be analyzed for cancer

If cancer is detected, your doctor will determine the oral cancer stage (I-IV) based on the size of the tumor and whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or another part of the body.

How is Oral Cancer Treated?


If you’ve received a diagnosis of oral cancer, your course of treatment will depend on the cancer’s stage (I-IV), tumor location, your overall health and comfort preferences. Your doctor may recommend surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of these treatment options.

Surgery for oral cancer

Your doctor may recommend surgery as a treatment for oral cancer. Surgical options can include:

  • Tumor removal - A surgeon will remove the tumor and a section of surrounding tissue. Smaller tumors may be cut away with minor surgery. Larger tumors in the mouth and neck require a more involved procedure.
  • Maxillectomy - This procedure removes a section or all of the hard palate (roof of the mouth)
  • Glossectomy - This surgery removes a part of or the entire tongue
  • Neck surgery - If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck, a surgeon will remove them
  • Reconstructive surgery - Surgeons can rebuild any jawbone, part of the lip, tongue, or palate that was removed

Surgery carries some risk of infection and bleeding and may affect your physical appearance and your ability to eat, swallow, and speak.


Chemotherapy utilizes powerful drugs to destroy oral cancer cells. The drugs can be given in pill form or IV drip, and chemotherapy is often combined with radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy attacks oral cancer cells with high doses of radiation. It can be administered by an external machine, delivering high-energy beams into your body, or from wires and radioactive pellets (brachytherapy) placed inside your body near the cancer.

Radiation therapy for mouth cancer can cause complications with your teeth and gums. You may want to visit your dentist before and after radiation therapy to learn how to reduce your risk of complications.

Targeted drug therapy

Precision-targeted drug therapy attacks the proteins that oral cancer cells need to grow, spread, and survive. Treatments can be given by injection or in pill form.


Immunotherapy uses the power of your own immune system to fight oral cancer. It can kill cancerous cells without harming your healthy ones. Immunotherapy is usually administered by injection.

Clinical trials

Innovative methods to fight oral cancer are always in the works. Your doctor will let you know if you qualify for a clinical trial of a new treatment.

Recovery from oral cancer

Some oral cancer treatments may impair your ability to swallow, chew, and speak. Our nutritionists and speech and swallowing therapists will work with you to build back your strength, confidence, and quality of life.



The growth rate of oral cancer can be unpredictable. A lot depends on its stage (I-IV), type, and location. There are types of mouth cancer that are slow growing, such as verrucous carcinoma, which can be found in the gums and cheeks.

Oral cancers represent a small percentage number of cancers diagnosed each year. Males are twice as likely to develop oral cancer as females.

Oral cancers can manifest as sores or patches in or around the mouth. Although oral cancer can be painful sometimes, it is completely normal to not feel pain or feel it at the early stages.

Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Oral Cancer Care

The compassionate doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian are familiar with all types of head and neck cancers, including oral cancer, pharyngeal cancer, laryngeal cancer, and cancer of the sinuses and nasal cavities. They can identify the symptoms of oral cancer and deliver a professional diagnosis and treatment options specific to your case.

Our multidisciplinary cancer teams, which include top-notch surgeons, are here for you. If you’ve received an oral cancer diagnosis, contact us today.