Oral cancer can spread quickly, so early diagnosis and treatment can help improve a person’s overall outcome and survival rate.

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Doctors will diagnose an estimated 54,540 new cases of oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in 2023. And experts estimate that these cancers will account for about 11,580 deaths in the same year.

This article reviews oral cancer’s spread, types of oral cancer, the symptoms and development of oral cancer, and what causes it to spread. We also look at treatment, outlook, and frequently asked questions.

Oral cancer spreads when cells from the tumor break free of the growth and implant on another organ or tissue. Though oral cancer can spread anywhere, doctors often look for oral cancer in the lungs and surrounding lymph nodes.

An exact timeline of spread is difficult to determine or generalize. Several factors affect how quickly cancer spreads, such as the tumor size and the stage of cancer.

Early treatment of oral cancer can help improve a person’s outlook. A doctor may be able to find and remove the cancer before it has a chance to spread.

The majority of oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells are flat, scale-like cells that form around the body on the skin, hollow organs, and lining of the digestive and respiratory tract.

Squamous cell cancers of the mouth tend to be fast-growing and spread quickly.

According to a 2020 study, while medical advancements have led to treatment improvements for a variety of cancer types, the outcomes for people with oral cancers, such as tongue cancer, remain unchanged.

Other cancers that can develop in the mouth include:

  • mucosal melanoma
  • lymphoma
  • sarcomas
  • minor salivary gland cancers

Cancers get their names from the part of the body where they originate. “Oral cancer” refers to any cancer that starts in the mouth or throat tissue.

Some common types of oral cancer include:

Symptoms and treatment can vary based on the exact location of the cancer and its stage when doctors diagnose it.

According to the American Cancer Society, some common symptoms include:

  • a lump or thickening on the cheeks, mouth, or lips
  • pain in the mouth that does not go away
  • red or white patch on the tongue, tonsils, gums, or lining of the mouth
  • feeling that something is in the throat
  • unhealing sore on the lip or in the mouth
  • trouble moving the jaw or tongue, chewing, or swallowing
  • sore throat
  • loosening of the teeth
  • swelling or pain in the jaw
  • numbness of the lips, tongue, or other areas
  • voice changes
  • dentures that start to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • pain in the ear
  • lump or mass in the back of the throat or neck
  • weight loss

Oral cancers occur due to cells in various parts of the mouth starting to grow out of control.

The exact cause of oral cancer is not clear. However, experts know of several possible risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a person developing oral cancer in their lifetime and the risk that it will spread quickly. These factors include:

A person can develop oral cancer even if they do not have any risk factors.

As with other forms of cancer, oral cancer can metastasize or spread to other areas of the body when cancerous cells break away from the tumor. The lungs and nearby lymph nodes are common locations for its spread, but it can spread to any organ or tissue in the body.

Treatments can vary based on the person’s overall health, the stage of the cancer, whether it has metastasized, previous treatments, and the person’s age.

Some possible treatments a doctor may recommend include:

According to a 2020 case study, the outlook for those with oral cancer has remained roughly the same, while many other cancers have seen improved outcomes in recent years. However, the researchers based their assessment on a 2001 study, so more recent data may show otherwise.

Oral cancer survival rates and outcomes vary based on where the cancer develops. The stage and whether it has spread to other body areas can also affect survival rates.

For example, the current tongue cancer 5-year survival rates, according to the American Cancer Society, are:

  • local: 83%
  • regional (lymph nodes or other nearby structures): 69%
  • distant: 41%
  • combined: 68%

Doctors base survival rate on an average number of people who are alive 5 years after diagnosis. For the best estimate, a person should talk with a medical professional to discuss their overall health, cancer, and other factors that can affect their outlook.

Below are some frequently asked questions.

What are the stages of oral cancer?

The most common staging system for oral cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system. This measures the tumor size (T), lymph node involvement (N), and whether cancer has spread (M).

Staging can vary based on the location of cancer but is often expressed as stages 0 to 4, with additional groupings within each stage.

What is the survival rate if someone’s oral cancer is left untreated?

Survival rates can vary for untreated oral cancer. According to a 2018 study, the 5-year survival rate for early-stage oral cancer is around 31%, while the survival rate for advanced cancer is about 12.6%.

How long does it take for oral cancer to grow?

The length of time it takes oral cancers to grow and spread can vary. The most common type of oral cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, spreads quickly.

How do you know oral cancer has spread?

A person may experience other symptoms that indicate cancer may have spread. Oral cancer often spreads to the lungs, which could cause a person to experience coughing, trouble breathing, or other issues.

A person with oral cancer should let a treatment team member know if they experience new or changing symptoms.

Is oral cancer fast or slow growing?

The most common type of oral cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, is often fast spreading. However, the speed of growth and spread can vary greatly.

Oral cancer is a fast-spreading type of cancer. When doctors catch it early, a person’s overall outlook can improve.

Several factors, such as tumor size, can affect the speed at which oral cancer spreads. A person should talk with a doctor about survival rates based on their health and age.