Gum Cancer

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What is gum cancer?

Gum cancers are a form of oral cancer. Most gum cancers form right on the gum surface and are a type of skin cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma. They may start out looking like a bump or a sore that does not heal. The sore may be red or white and may look like a thickening of the gum. Teeth near the sore may become loose or dentures may not fit well.

Alcohol and tobacco use are the biggest risk factors for gum cancers and other types of oral cancer. In general, oral cancers are more common in men than in women and typically occur after the age of 40. Each year, about 37,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with some type of oral cancer (Source: ACS).

Early stage gum cancers are often treatable with either surgery or radiation therapy. After surgery to remove the cancer, reconstructive surgery can help restore structures that have been removed, and rehabilitation can help you relearn how to eat, swallow or talk, if needed.

You have the best chance of curing gum cancer if you catch it early. Seek prompt medical care if you develop sores or lumps on your gums, or if you notice loosening of your teeth or changes in the way your dentures fit.

What are the symptoms of gum cancer?

Gum cancers may start out looking like a bump or a sore that does not heal. The sore may be red or white and may look like a thickening of the gum. It might bleed. Teeth near the sore may become loose or dentures may not fit well.

Common symptoms of gum cancer

Common symptoms of gum cancer include:

  • Altered sense of taste

  • Bleeding gums

  • Cracking of the gums

  • Difficulty eating

  • Loosening of the teeth or ill-fitting dentures

  • Lump that does not go away

  • Nonhealing sore, which may be white, pale, red, dark, or otherwise discolored

  • Pain

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

  • Thickened area of the gums

  • Unexplained weight loss

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Emergent complications of gum cancer are rare, but gum cancer is a serious disease and is easiest to treat if caught early. Seek prompt medical care if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Altered sense of taste
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Gum pain
  • Persistent swollen lymph nodes (more than two weeks)
  • Sore or lump on the gums that does not heal
  • Unintended weight loss

What causes gum cancer?

What causes cells to undergo changes that lead to cancer is not known; however, several risk factors are known, including tobacco use, which is the strongest single risk factor for gum cancer, and alcohol use.

What are the risk factors for gum cancer?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing gum cancer. Not all people with risk factors will get gum cancer. Risk factors for gum cancer include:

  • Age over 35 years
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Chronic irritation of the mouth
  • Diet low in vegetables and fruits
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection
  • Male gender
  • Poor oral hygeine
  • Smoking or use of other tobacco products

Reducing your risk of gum cancer

You may be able to lower your risk of gum cancer by:

  • Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits

  • Observing good oral care

  • Quitting use of tobacco products, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco

  • Reducing your alcohol consumption

  • Seeing your dentist regularly

How is gum cancer treated?

Treatment of gum cancer begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life, including regular dental care. Regular medical care allows a health care professional to provide early screening tests that can detect diseases at an early stage when they are most treatable. Regular medical care also provides an opportunity for your health care professional to promptly evaluate symptoms and your risks for developing gum cancer.

The goal of gum cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.

Common treatments for gum cancer

Common treatments for gum cancer include:

  • Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells

  • Participation in a clinical trial that is testing promising new therapies and treatments for gum cancer

  • Radiation therapy to attack cancer cells

  • Surgery to remove the cancer and evaluate how far it has spread

Other treatments for gum cancer

Other therapies may be added to help with your general state of health and any side effects of cancer treatment:

  • Antinausea medications if nausea occurs

  • Blood cell growth factors to increase the number of white blood cells if levels of these get too low

  • Blood transfusions to temporarily replace blood components (such as red blood cells) that have dropped to low levels

  • Dietary counseling to help maintain strength and nutritional status

  • Occupational and physical therapy to help with eating, swallowing or talking problems

  • Pain medications as needed to increase comfort

  • Reconstructive surgery to restore structures that have been removed

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with gum cancer and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which gum cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus on measures to keep a person comfortable and maximize the quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of gum cancer?

Complications of untreated gum cancer can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of gum cancer include:

  • Adverse effects of anticancer treatments
  • Decreased ability to eat, drink or talk
  • Hemorrhage (uncontrolled bleeding)
  • Lost teeth
  • Recurring cancer after treatment
  • Spread of cancer into nearby structures
  • Spread of cancer to distant areas of the body
  • Spread of cancer to lymph nodes in the neck
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Oral cancer. American Cancer Society.
  3. Siegel R, Naishadham D, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2013. CA Cancer J Clin 2013; 63:11.