If you have any symptoms of mouth cancer, sometimes called oral cancer, they need to be checked by your doctor.

What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer, sometimes called oral cancer, includes cancer of the tongue, palate, gums, the floor of the mouth, inner cheeks and lips.

Like the rest of your body, the mouth is made of tiny ‘building blocks’ called cells.

Mouth cancer begins when these cells grow abnormally.

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous


Mouth cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of mouth cancer may include:

  • a swelling or a sore on your lip or in your mouth that won't heal, especially under dentures
  • a white or red patch in your mouth
  • problems or pain when chewing or swallowing
  • problems or pain when moving your tongue or jaw
  • numbness on your tongue or other areas in your mouth
  • swelling of your jaw that mean dentures no longer fit or become uncomfortable

Having these symptoms does not mean you have mouth cancer, but it is important to have any changes checked by your doctor or dentist.

What causes mouth cancer?

Like many types of cancer, we don’t always know why people get mouth cancer, but some things increase your risk.

Risk factors for mouth cancer include:

  • getting older
  • using tobacco
  • drinking alcohol
  • spending time in the sun unprotected

Tips for talking to your doctor

  • make a list of what you are feeling and how often it happens, including as much detail as possible
  • think about your family/whānau history of cancer and tell your doctor
  • go back to your doctor if you don't feel better, even if tests show you don't have a problem - you can ask for a second opinion if you want one 
  • take a family/whānau member or friend with you to the appointment for support
Need someone to talk to?
8:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday
0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have health professionals to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: December 22, 2022