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Gum Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Prevention

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Written by
NewMouth
Medically Reviewed by 
Dr. Erica Anand
8 Sources Cited

What is Gum Cancer?

Gum cancer is a type of mouth or oral cancer. It forms when cells in the gums grow out of control, forming lesions or tumors.

Oral cancer is in the category of head and neck cancers, and doctors treat them similarly. Lesions, growths, and tumors in the mouth characterize oral cancer. They can occur on the lips, tongue, gums, lining of the cheeks, and the roof or floor of the mouth.  

What Does Gum Cancer Look Like?

Gum cancer typically has the following symptoms:

  • Red or white patches lining the gums
  • A growth or lump in the mouth or gums
  • Loose teeth
  • Mouth sores that easily bleed and don’t heal properly
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Crusty spots and rough areas on the gums
  • Lesions on the tongue, soft palate, or lining of the mouth

The Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF) provides photos of gum cancer on their website. 

Risk Factors for Gum Cancer and Other Oral Cancers

The National Cancer Institute (NCI), Cleveland Clinic, and American Cancer Society (ACS) report on the risk factors for oral cancer. 

About three out of four people who develop gum cancer and other mouth cancers practice one or more of the following habits:1

  • Smoke cigarettes, cigars, or pipes
  • Use smokeless tobacco products, like chewing tobacco, snuff, dip, or hookah
  • Regularly drink excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Spend a lot of time in direct sunlight without lip protection 

People who have human papillomavirus (HPV) and/or a family history of mouth cancer are also more prone to developing gum and other mouth cancers

Who Does Oral Cancer Affect?

Men are at higher risk of developing oral cancer compared to women. Light-skinned people are slightly more likely to develop oral cancer than dark-skinned people.

According to one study:2

  • About 1 in 60 men have a lifetime risk of developing oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer
  • The same is true for 1 in 140 for women
  • The average age physicians diagnose oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer is 63

How Does Oral Cancer Affect the Body?

Mouth cancer may affect your oral cavity and your oropharynx. Your oropharynx is composed of parts of the tongue, the roof of the mouth, the area behind your wisdom teeth, and the part of the throat that is visible when the mouth is wide open. 

Oropharyngeal cancer (throat cancer) is cancer in your oropharynx and can occur concurrently with mouth cancer.

Mouth cancer may also affect other parts of your oral cavity, such as the lips, lining of the cheeks, tongue, and gums. Oral cancer causes the cells of the affected area to grow and multiply, causing lesions, rough patches, and discomfort or pain.

Gum cancer and other types of oral cancer can spread to other parts of the mouth, head, and neck, as well as other parts of the body.

It is best to diagnose and treat oral cancer early. This is essential to stop cancerous cells from growing. It also allows doctors to perform any other necessary treatments before the problem worsens.

Oral cancer can be confused with other common problems like gingivitis, lip sores, or dry patches on the inside of the mouth. 

What Causes Gum Cancer?

Gum cancer and other mouth cancers begin in the squamous cells of the oral cavity. Squamous cells are flat cells that resemble fish scales under a microscope. 

Like other cancers, squamous cells become cancerous when their DNA alters. These squamous cells begin to grow and multiply out of control. 

As oral cancer progresses, the cancerous squamous cells may spread to other areas of the mouth, head, neck, or other body parts.

What are the Symptoms of Gum Cancer?

Oral cancer has symptoms similar to other common and less severe problems. Rough or dry patches on the gums or inside of the mouth may be signs of precancerous conditions. Gum cancer is commonly mistaken for gingivitis. 

Other symptoms of gum (and mouth) cancer include:

  • Rough spots and crusty areas on the gums
  • Loose teeth
  • Bleeding along the gums
  • Sores and lesions on the gums that don’t heal
  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing
  • Difficulty moving your jaw or tongue
  • Speech problems
  • Weight loss
  • Earache
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Erythroleukoplakia (red and white patches)
  • Erythroplakia (raised red and white patches that easily bleed)
  • Leukoplakia (flat white or gray patches in your mouth)
  • Pain, numbness, and tenderness inside your mouth, on your face, or around neck
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Chronic hoarse voice

How is Gum Cancer Diagnosed?

Dentists usually first identify gum cancer through an oral cancer exam. If they spot a potential symptom or early sign of oral cavity cancer, they will follow up with preliminary tests or refer you to an oral cancer specialist. 

Oral cancer specialists include: 

These specialists are commonly known as ear, nose, and throat (ENT) surgeons. The next step after the oral cancer exam is conducting tests to determine if it is mouth cancer. 

These tests include:

Physical examination

Your doctor will examine the entirety of your oral cavity and may feel around your mouth. They will also examine your head, face, and neck for any warning signs of oral cancer.

Brush biopsy

Brush biopsy is also known as scrape biopsy or exfoliative cytology. Doctors use a tool to scrape mouth areas to test cells for cancer.

Incisional biopsy

Like a brush biopsy, the doctor removes pieces of cells to test for cancer. However, they use an incision tool rather than a scraping tool.

Indirect laryngoscopy and pharyngoscopy

The doctor uses a tool with a small mirror on one end to visibly examine the throat, the base of the tongue, and the larynx.

Direct (flexible) pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy

The doctor uses an endoscope to look at other areas of the mouth and throat that aren’t visible with a mirror. An endoscope has a small lens with light attached to a thin pole. This can detect oral cancer. 

How is Gum Cancer Treated? 

Gum cancer and other mouth cancers have three main treatment options: surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Physicians advise early oral cavity cancer treatment for best outcomes.

The best treatment for oral cancer depends on your health, age, preference, risk factors, stage and type of cancer, and whether or not it has spread to other parts of the body. Therefore, treatment options vary.

Some treatments for oral cancer include:

  • Primary tumor surgery — removal of the tumor through your oral cavity or an incision in the neck via neck surgery.
  • Glossectomy — partial or total removal of the tongue.
  • Mandibulectomy — surgery for oral cancer in your jaw.
  • Neck dissection — removal of lymph nodes from the neck.
  • Maxillectomy — removal of all or part of the bony roof of the mouth, also known as the hard palate.
  • Reconstruction — surgeons perform reconstruction after removing large pieces of tissue. Reconstruction surgery fills in the spaces left by other surgeries.

Chemotherapy

Anti-cancer drugs that target and kill cancer cells.

Radiation Therapy

Beams of radiation energy target cancer cells to kill them or halt any additional oral cancer growth. Physicians may combine radiation therapy with other cancer treatment options.

Targeted Therapy

Drugs and other substances can precisely identify and kill specific types of cancer cells without harming normal cells. Monoclonal antibodies are an example of targeted cancer treatment therapy. These antibodies are immune system proteins that help treat oral cancers.

Immunotherapy

Also called biological therapy, immunotherapy supports your immune system to fight oral cancer.

Gum Cancer Prevention Tips

To help prevent oral cancer:

  • Use sunscreen, especially on your lips
  • Stop smoking tobacco or using smokeless tobacco products; if you cannot stop, try to cut back or speak to your doctor about ways to quit
  • Drink alcohol in moderation; talk to your doctor about ways to cut back if you experience difficulty in doing so
  • Get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine
  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Schedule routine dental exams; regular exams will help you and your doctor detect oral cancer early
Last updated on April 12, 2022
8 Sources Cited
Last updated on April 12, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. American Cancer Society. “Key Statistics for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers.”
  2. American Dental Association. “Detecting Oral Cancer Early”
  3. National Cancer Institute, “Head and Neck Cancer - Patient Version.”
  4. National Cancer Institute, “Head and Neck Cancers.”
  5. The Journal of the American Dental Association. “Oral cancer What to do if something unusual shows up.”
  6. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. “Oral Cancer”
  7. MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Oral Cancer”
  8. Rush. “Preventing Oral Cancers”
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